Should you avoid idioms when writing for translation?

You are searching for a translator, or you are (almost) ready to use one. You might have read several guidelines and suggestions on how to write your English copy with translation in mind, to make your translator’s job easier, including: don’t use idioms, noun strings, complex verbs, and contractions; avoid passive/complex sentences and specialized jargon; keep sentences short; and others. Are such tips useful? Should you follow them?

While some of this advice is (partially) right on target, some of it is not, because it would force you to put unnecessary effort into your writing. The following examples, starting from the idioms, will give you an idea of what you should keep in mind when preparing – or reviewing – your copy for translation.

You are told that you should…

1) Avoid idioms—The rationale being, that idioms are: a) hard to understand if you aren’t a native speaker, and b) hard to translate because they are typical expressions of each language and specific to a single culture.

According to this advice, in a brochure that will be translated you shouldn’t write: “Our company has developed a cutting-edge technology,” but rather “Our company has developed an innovative (or pioneering) technology”. Alternatively, in a newsletter addressed to your employees around the world that will be translated in every locale, you shouldn’t write “Five ways we can hit the ground running in 2017,” but instead “Five ways we can start business in 2017 and proceed quickly and with enthusiasm”.

But idioms, these arbitrary (and sometimes absurd) combinations of words that mean something else, are quite useful, give a language its distinctive character and are part of everyday language. Why should you write with such constraint?

You don’t need to give up writing idioms if your material will be translated by an expert translator. Besides being a native speaker of your target language, an expert translator is fluent in your language. They understand most English idioms right away, and the ones they don’t understand they are able to figure out either looking them up online in several contexts or in specialized dictionaries (like Urban Dictionary), or by simply asking a colleague who translates in the opposite direction and is thus an English native speaker.

But isn’t it hard to translate an idiom? Yes, it might not be as straightforward as translating a more linear sentence, but often for every idiom there are one or more equivalent idioms in the target language. The translator will think right away of the corresponding idiom, recall it while translating other parts of your text, find it searching online for similar expression or using specialized dictionaries, or consult other expert colleagues. As a last option, if the translator decides that there isn’t really an equivalent idiomatic expression in the target language, they will convey the meaning of your idiom in an appropriate register with an analogous idiom or with a straightforward translation. (Note that in this last case the outcome is the same as if you had avoided the idiom in first place, but without any need for extra writing effort on your part.)

Here’s an example based on an idiom you will find in the final pages of the novel The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis. (Even if you are not familiar with this great 20th-century American novelist, most likely you know of the movies made from some of his books, like “The Hustler” with Paul Newman and “The Man Who Fell to Earth” with David Bowie.)

The main character, chess prodigy Beth Harmon, is squaring off against the Russian world champion Vasily Borgov:

She looked back at the board – at the real board that sat between them, and saw the endgame that was about to emerge when the dust settled.

There are at least four possible translations into Italian:

1) Riportò lo sguardo sulla scacchiera – la scacchiera reale che si trovava fra loro due, e vide il fine partita che stava per emergere quando si fossero calmate le acque.

This is the best solution. The idiom when the dust settled is translated with an equivalent Italian idiom (quando si fossero calmate le acque, literally, when the waves quieted down).

 

2) Riportò lo sguardo sulla scacchiera – la scacchiera reale che si trovava fra loro due, e vide il fine partita che stava per emergere alla stretta finale.

This is a good alternative solution to 1). The idiom when the dust settled is translated with another Italian idiom (alla stretta finale, literally, at the critical point in the game) which is not a strictly equivalent idiom because it moves the focus forward in time (in the final rush of the game) but conveys idiomatically the general meaning of the text.

 

3) Riportò lo sguardo sulla scacchiera – la scacchiera reale che si trovava fra loro due, e vide il fine partita che stava per emergere quando la fase più convulsa della partita si fosse calmata.

This is an acceptable paraphrasing (quando la fase più convulsa della partita si fosse calmata, literally, when the game quieted down) of the idiom when the dust settled. This is what an expert translator would write if there were no corresponding idiom in Italian.
4) Riportò lo sguardo sulla scacchiera – la scacchiera reale che si trovava fra loro due, e vide il fine partita che stava per emergere dopo che la polvere si fosse posata.

This is not acceptable. The idiom when the dust settled is translated in a ludicrous way (dopo che la polvere si fosse posata, literally, when the dust came down on the board). It’s what might be written by a translator who doesn’t understand that when the dust settled is an idiom and needs to be translated accordingly.

 

Walter Tevis didn’t know if and when his book would be translated, but even if he knew, he shouldn’t have needed to worry about avoiding the idiom. Likewise, don’t force yourself to avoid idioms when you write your material for translation. If you hire an expert translator, they will take care of them.

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