Which languages #2 – idioms and metaphors

Thank you to each of you who listed languages you speak besides English.

Idioms and metaphors present special complications for translation, including Bible translation. Idioms and metaphors are not not likely to be understood by a speaker of another language if translated literally to that language. For instance, if I said in Cheyenne Enehpoese ma’eno, the literal translation to English would be ‘The turtle is hanging closed’. I assume that no one who hears that English translation would understand what the Cheyenne idiom actually refers to. And if I called someone an o’kome, literally, ‘coyote,’ I assume that few, if any, of you who read this post would know what I am actually saying about the person I am talking about. But an interpreter at the United Nations who knows both Cheyenne and English would be able to translate both of these examples of Cheyenne figurative language to English so that their meaning to Cheyenne speakers would be understood by English speakers. The interpreter would know to translate the first Cheyenne expression to English ‘It’s foggy.” And they would translate the metaphor as ‘foxy.’

I invite any of you who understand languages other than English to list examples of idioms or metaphors in those languages. Please include both a literal translation as well as a translation of the (figurative) meaning the example has to speakers of the language.

23 thoughts on “Which languages #2 – idioms and metaphors

  1. Bob MacDonald says:

    Wonderful examples! One I remember from my Latin teacher – he translated the English you’re pulling my leg into French literally ‘Vous tirez ma jambe’. No go, apparently. At least so he told us in the ’50s.

    My problem is – what kind of guesswork is possible with Hebrew when there are no native speakers? My only strategy is to observe the parallels and repeated words to guess what the sometimes deliberate structure did for them. But this problem feels insurmountable at times.

  2. Nathan Smith says:

    Karen Jobes wrote an interesting article [0] on bilingual quotation, which is the term for the live translation process at the UN. The article does not delve into the specifics of metaphors and idioms, but here is an interesting portion:

    “Linguists studying those translations discovered that the failure to communicate accurately the meaning of the source utterance was found in those places where the simultaneous translator rendered the source utterance too literally, that is, when preservation of the grammatical, syntactical, and semantic forms of the original statements was given too high a priority in producing the translation.”

    You can see how trying to literally render a figure of speech would run afoul of this type of problem.

    [0] http://zondervan.typepad.com/zondervan/2008/02/zondervan-is-pl.html

  3. J. K. Gayle says:

    include both a literal translation as well as a translation of the (figurative) meaning

    Wayne, This is not only a good request of us your readers here, but it’s also good general advice to translators (even specifically to Bible translators and UN interpreters).

    The danger for the translator is to presume too much. If, for example, John the gospel writer had only acted like a UN simultaneous interpreter, then he would have missed much that Jesus said. In Hebrew Aramaic which none of us has access to today, Jesus said something in public like “Destroy this temple.” John translates the Greek noun phrase as “τὸν ναὸν τοῦτον.” This is a literal translation! If John had translated it initially and only as “του ναου του σωματος αυτου,” with a more figural interpretation, then the whole narrative and the misunderstanding that John, the other disciples, and all the others listening had had would be lost on all readers today.

    Another example is from 1 Kings 18:27, which a preacher used in a sermon today. The translation the preacher liked was the NLT, which has Elijah mocking: “You’ll have to shout louder, for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!” Now, is it really relieving himself in the Hebrew? This is certainly an English idiom; but most other translators have used something like “busy, or traveling.” Doesn’t a literal translation work as well or better than this idiomatic one? Or does the idiom work better?

  4. Seth Odom says:

    I speak, read, and write Portuguese fluently. If you want to say to someone in Portuguese, “I miss you” you have to say,
    “Eu estou com saudades de voce”. The interesting thing is that the word “saudade” has no equivalent in English, therefore, to translate literally would be something like, “I am with [strong longing, or strong lack] of/for you”.

    To say “What’s up” in Portuguese you have to say “E ai?” which literally translated is “and there?”

    Another interesting one is saying “What’s wrong?” To say that you would say, “O que voce tem?” which literally translated means “What you have?”

    There are plenty more, but that’s about all I can think of after a long day.

    I am very supportive of the idiomatic approach to modern Bible translation, however, I do think that understanding why the cultures in the Bible used the idioms they did might be helpful for understanding the original meaning. So having the idioms translated literally might be of great use as a lot of the FE translations do.

  5. Ruud says:

    In Dutch we have the idiom:
    idiom: “Het regent pijpenstelen”
    literal: “It is raining pipe stems”
    meaning: “It is raining very hard”
    idiom: “It is raining cats and dogs”

  6. jkgayle says:

    if I said in Cheyenne Enehpoese ma’eno, the literal translation to English would be ‘The turtle is hanging closed’…. The interpreter would know to translate the first Cheyenne expression to English ‘It’s foggy.” And they would translate the metaphor as ‘foxy.’

    Seth,
    You make a good point when you say “understanding why the cultures in the Bible used the idioms they did might be helpful for understanding the original meaning.”

    Why would Jesus, for example, say that “foxes have holes”? Isn’t the Hebrew word (and perhaps the Hebrew Aramaic variant) for the animal (שׁוּעָל) a way of getting at what that animal does (i.e., burrows holes in the ground)? Then Jesus calls Herod Antipas “that fox.” At least Luke’s Greek translation seems literal even when clearly idiomatic (i.e., Αἱ ἀλώπεκες φωλεοὺς ἔχουσιν in Luke 9:58; and τῇ ἀλώπεκι ταύτῃ in Luke 13:32). If Luke had followed what Wayne suggests here, then he might have just not called Herod ἀλώπεκι at all but something that more baldly means “crafty” in Greek. It’s not clear from Greek writings that the word for the animal “fox” always means “crafty.” But now we’re taking more Hebraic senses, more than just the idea of a jackal or other burrowing desert animal. Surely Luke and his readers had an idea of what Jesus meant when the translator is consistently literal. To assume that Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek all have the same meanings for what we in English use “fox” for is quite an assumption. I’m guessing Cheyenne “foxy” might have different meanings; in English it does too. Herod is like a fox; Herod is a fox; Herod’s daughter is a fox because she’s foxy — these all have different senses. But I think Luke makes a good decision to translate literally using ἀλώπεκ* — and I’m presuming he has translated into Greek from Hebrew Aramaic literally, even though one use is clearly figurative.

  7. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurk, the examples I gave were for Cheyenne and for translation for English speakers. The examples you raise are for different issues. The Cheyenne examples don’t work for translation to English because English speakers do not share the same language and cultural assumptions as Cheyenne speakers.

    Luke did indeed literally translate what Jesus said. But at this point I do not know if Luke’s intended audience did or did not share the language and cultural background necessary for understanding the literal translation. If they did, then there is no problem with a literal translation of Jesus’ Aramaic idiom. As for what Jesus meant when he used the metaphor of the fox, many, perhaps most, exegetes believe that the figurative meaning of Jesus’ fox was different from the figurative meaning of fox for English speakers. (And I think you pointed out that English fox can have different figurative meanings, and that, of course, is true.)

    Each translation example has to be considered individually, taking into account the two (or more) languages involved, assumed shared language and cultural assumptions, etc.

    My post was not about a prohibition of literal translations of idioms and metaphors. Instead, my post invited readers to submit examples where literal translations don’t work. For some language and culture pairings literal translations can be understood accurately with their original meanings. For others, they cannot.

    We can have posts dealing with language pairings where literal translations do accurately communicate original meaning. Those would be different posts, not this one, which gives readers a different invitation to illustrate an important point about translation, namely, that we must study the meaning of utterances in each translation language pairing to determine if the same meaning is communicated by the translation as in the original utterance.

  8. J. K. Gayle says:

    to submit examples where literal translations don’t work

    I understand, Wayne:

    “Kasih hati, minta jantung.”

    In Indonesian literally this means something like

    “Love liver, ask heart.”

    But figurally as a pair of clauses it’s used to express what in English we use “you give an inch, they take a mile” for.

    “Kasih minta” can mean “you ask” and “minta kasih” to “kindly ask.” “Hati” is literally (and biologically) the word for “liver” but is used for the deepest emotions as in English we use “heart.” But “jantung” is biologically or literally the “heart.” Sometimes lovers will say, “kamulah jantung hati ku” which combines “jantung” and “hati” literally to mean “you’re heart liver mine” but, as you can imagine in English would go something like “you’re my sweetheart of sweethearts.”

  9. Wayne Leman says:

    “Kasih hati, minta jantung.”

    In Indonesian literally this means something like

    “Love liver, ask heart.”

    This and your next one, nice examples, Kurk. Thanks. Don’t let me forget to get to the other issues you have raised since they are so important for how figurative language was handled vis-a-vis translation by the biblical authors.

  10. jkgayle says:

    dễ thương = “easy [to] love” in Vietnamese literally

    figurally, the phrase means “cute”

    đẹp trai = “beautiful/pretty male” in Vietnamese literally

    figurally, the phrase means “manly handsome”

  11. Dru Brooke-Taylor says:

    I don’t know any other languages to comment, but there may be differences even in English. I can’t speak for US usage, but in English English, these are both good idiom, but saying a woman is foxy means something quite different from saying someone is a fox. Furthermore, to describe a woman as a vixen conveys something quite sinister and insulting.

    If you think about it, most familiar or well known animals are used idiomatically in this way, and even some birds. Although all three species are similar, to liken a person to a fox, a wolf or a dog all have different resonances, which people have no difficulty picking up – even though wolves have been extinct here for several centuries. They may have quite different significances in other languages, but I’d be surprised to be told that the description of Herod Antipas as a fox didn’t mean much the same as how we’d understand it.

    ‘Foxes have holes’ works in English English because what we know as a fox does live either in a hole or under a shed.

  12. Sabio Lantz says:

    三日坊主 (mikka boozu)
    Literal: 3-day monk
    Figurative: Someone who has big ideas and grand plans but at the slightest difficulty quickly gives it all up.

    Of course none of these details are the point. For idioms are now a dime a dozen for anyone goggling. But I am curious what point you will make.

  13. Mike Sangrey says:

    I certainly don’t know this language, but someone gave this example to me a few years back (Hi Wayne 🙂 )

    Náma’xene’enéseha He’haévêháne.
    ‘I came down with a bad cold.’
    [lit. Cold (personified) beat me up bad.]

    The English, “I have a cold,” provides a good exercise in understanding the idiomatic nature of language. It’s a common enough reality to human beings, and yet many languages don’t use ‘have’ in this idiomatic way. “Take a picture” is probably another good example[1]. When translating the Greek ποιέω, the translator needs to frequently consider its idiomatic nature.

    When translating idioms, sometimes you just have to make do. In fact, I’ve made do so often I now have a big pile of it.

    🙂


    [1] How do you translate, The thief took a picture.” into another language? 🙂

  14. Dru Brooke-Taylor says:

    “Thee day monk”. I like that one. Sabio, I’m going to look for an excuse to use that expression. It’s good. And Mike, I like your pun on ‘make do’. If you don’t mind, I might borrow that too.

  15. Tapani says:

    Here’s my favourite Swedish expression [not that I use it, but it’s just funny to a foreigner]: “Sjutton åckso!”
    Literal: “Seventeen also!”
    Idiomatic: “$#£^%*&#!”

    Some Finnish ones. I’ll give the idiomatic translations such that they would be fun to translate back into Finnish.
    “x on poikki”
    L: “x is cut [into two pices, like a robe or a length of wood]”
    I: “x is exhausted”

    “x nyppii minua” where x is not a person
    L: “x is picking at me”
    I: “x is getting on my nerves”

    “x:llä on herne nenässä”
    L: “x has a pea up his nose”
    I: “x is narked about something or in a tiff”

    “pilkunviilaaja”
    L: “someone who files [i.e. applies the tool ‘file’ to] commas”
    I: “nit-picker” (or hairsplitter – but that’s not so much fun, because Finnish has that idiom already)

  16. Gary Simmons says:

    This just in: Police station toilet stolen! Cops have nothing to go on!!!

    That’s a double-idiomatic-entendre, I think. “To go” [to the bathroom] and “to go” [i.e. to progress metaphorically]. “Go” does not often have a use for non-spatial progress, though some other verbs of movement do.

    @Kurk, regarding “relieving himself”: Not just is it an English idiom, but a euphemism. While my Hebrew is not the greatest, I would imagine that somebody would not use a euphemism in a taunt. No; the most crass and embarrassing word choice is what I’d expect in such a taunt.

    @Mike: Your example of sickness idioms reminds me of ἔχω’s idiomatic usage to refer to one’s health/welfare.

  17. J. K. Gayle says:

    would not use a euphemism in a taunt

    Good point, Gary. (I wish Robert Alter had translated his David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel not just starting in “I Samuel and ending in I Kings 2”; but I wish we knew what he’d make of Elijah’s mocking further ahead in 1 Kings 18:27. At I Sam 25:22 and 23:34, Alter has “a single pisser against the wall,” and in a footnote adds: “The literal meaning of the Hebrew is properly followed in the King James Version, as it is in this translation. The phrase, of course, is a rough and vivid epithet for ‘male,’ and one that occurs only in curses. Its edge of vulgarity seems perfectly right for David’s anger” [page 156].)

  18. Gary Simmons says:

    Kurk, thank you for bringing up the verse on Elijah in 1 Kings 18:27 NLT. I used it as an illustration in my most recent post. If you don’t mind my asking, would you mind giving me some feedback on it? I’m trying to set forth a coherent translation philosophy.

  19. Michael Peterson says:

    Of the many Biblical Hebraic idioms, my favorite (and arguably the best known) is [i]erekh apanim[/i] — literally [i]long of nose[/i] but understood as patient or long-suffering. For example, the idiom is used in Ex 34:6 to describe God as longsuffering (KJV), “slow to anger” (NAS, NRS).

    Michael

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