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Difficulties Faced When Translating Idioms

Part# 1

Idioms or idiomatic expressions exist in every language. By definition, an idiom is a word or phrase that is not taken literally like “bought the farm” has nothing to do with purchasing real estate, but refers to “dying”. In other words, an idiom is a form of speech or an expression that is peculiar to itself. Grammatically, it cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements. However, cultural traditions or customs play an important role in the course of the idiom interpretation. By way of illustration, there is an English idiom saying, “He kicked the bucket”. If said or read literally, it means nothing, but culturally it is used when someone died or passed away. Moreover, some idioms use color words to convey other meanings. For example, there are several that use the word “blue”. “The blues” can refer to both a style of music and feeling sad. If something occurs rarely, it is said to happen “once in a blue moon”, because a blue moon is two full moons in one month, which doesn’t happen a lot. For the purposes of this brief article, we are chiefly concerned with translation related problems arising from cultural differences between the SL (source language) and the TL (target language). As for the problematic areas raised because of other factors such as the social and religious ones, they will be discussed in the next part due to lack of space in this particular one.

Thus, it is interesting to note that the majority of idioms are used interchangeably between both speaking and writing, i.e. each type is marked as written only, spoken only, literary…etc. Generally, idioms are used more often in speaking than writing and therefore 60-70% of idioms are associated with spoken language. For example, if you say in Arabic that someone is”مقطوع من شجرة“, “Maqtoh min Shajarah” in transliteration, which literally means, “he or she is cut off from a tree”, seems to be funny and awkward. But if taken idiomatically, the one who utters such an expression means that “He or she has no relatives”. On the other hand, there is what is called rhetorical idioms in Arabic, which consist of one short sentence and used in formal style. For example, the phrase أثلج صدري”” “Athlaja sadri” in transliteration, to mean “That cooled my breast (chest)” is used to give relief or comfort or bring hope for good news. As mentioned above, idioms tell much about people’s traditional ways of experiencing reality, about values and warnings, and rules and wisdoms the elders want to impress on the minds of their young people.

As we have already mentioned, an idiom cannot be understood simply from the meaning of its individual words, i.e., it is not total of the meaning of its individual parts which poses a serious problem for the translator. Moreover, the differences between the SL (source language) and the TL (target language) and the variation in their culture make the process of translating a certain idiom rather a difficult task. Hence, cultural roots, however, play a major part in the translation process. Words which have various connotations in one language may not have the same emotive associations in another. Different languages frequently reflect different connotations and associations of feeling because of the differences in cultural roots. Moreover, the Islamic religion has affected the Arabic language and its society culture. As indicated earlier, problems of translation involve not only the linguistic and stylistic features but also the cultural and social differences between SL and TL.

In light of the above description, the bigger the gap between the SL and the TL, the more difficult the transfer of message from the former to the latter will be. In the light of the above facts, the wide differences between the English social culture and the Arabic social culture have a prevailing impact on the expressions used in both languages. In conclusion, the translator needs to have a solid foundation in the culture of the target language so that he or she can deliver a proper, communicative and idiomatic translation of the expression used in the source language text. Therefore, the translator should enhance his or her cross-cultural awareness and need open – minded understanding of the culture of the second language from different aspects. In addition, the difference between the source language and the target language as well as variation in their cultures makes the process of translating the idioms a real challenge.