Legs and Ears, Noodles and Camels – the Art of Translation

It is a common refrain from translators that translation is more of an art than a science and it is no more obvious than in the world of idioms.

The interesting linguistic facts are that there are often similar meaning idioms in different languages. So for example, the idiom meaning to fool, or trick someone in English is to pull someone’s leg, but in Russian the phrase is Вешать лапшу на уши which when literally translated means to hang noodles on someone’s ears.

Another interesting thing is how geographically similar places have very different idioms. For example, in Wales, they apparently are able to say rhoi’r ffidil yn y tô which literally means to put the fiddle in the roof, while the corresponding English is to throw in the towel.  Both mean to give up. Why would two cultures so close together in modern times have a musical and a sporting idiom for the same thing?

But how should this be translated? Do you show the literal translation (that doesn’t make sense)?  Do you use a similar idiom, which is problematic as these things are famously nuanced?  Or do you translate it into the nearest standard speech in that language?  This will (a) often be a lot more words, which can be a problem when translating time dependent media such as videos, (b) will probably lose some subtle meaning as these idioms have hidden meaning and (c) will change the tone of a piece removing humor or local color.

The answer of course is “it depends”, hence the artistry in our craft. The translator needs to understand both the actual meaning of the idiom and also the situational meaning.

One of my favorite commercials at the moment features a camel in an office on Wednesday. Now the humor comes from, of course, a talking camel but more importantly that in the USA (and perhaps other places – but certainly not all places) we colloquially call Wednesday Hump Day. Referring to Wednesday as “hump day” is a fairly modern tradition in American English. The term represents the idea that Wednesday is the middle of the workweek and can be visualized as a mound or hill that a person climbs.

There are a lot of posts on the internet about idiomatic usage in different languages.  Check some of these from Omniglot and Artocratic Magazine  and a wonderful book entitled “I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms From Around the World” by Jag Bhalla.rpg online gamesраскрутка сайта анализбрутфорс для wifi скачать бесплатно

  • http://kieranmaynard.com/ Kieran

    Cute commercial! Thanks for sharing.

    I came across a situation like this the other day translating Chinese.

    剥丝抽茧般地展现在观众面前
    “as if stripping the cocoon and reeling the
    silk” before the audience

    (Meaning, ‘in vivid detail.’)

    The phrase “in vivid detail” just isn’t vivid, but the readers probably aren’t familiar with silk production. As this was a cultural piece, I translated the idiom literally and left a note. What would you do in a case like this?

    • Dave Bryant (Dotsub)

      An excellent example. I hate to sound like a commercial, but that is one of the benefits that we provide with our Enterprise customers is an ongoing relationship with our customers and so we can aks them how they want it translated. Personally i think you did the only thing possible – there isn’t a widely accepted English idiom that you could substitute. The other alternative is to “translate the translation” but as you said it takes the color out of the piece. Was this a written piece or a video?

      • http://kieranmaynard.com/ Kieran

        Written. As it was for a magazine I left comments and assumed the editor would choose the final wording.