Wednesday, February 22, 2012

An Idiot Looks At Idioms (With Footnotes)


An idiom is a figure of speech which is readily understood by the native speakers of a language, but which, if taken literally, may not make sense to a non-native. Every language has them. They pose particular difficulties for translators.

The following is a true story.

I was out for a bicycle ride with friends on a fine late-summer day. We were riding our mountain bikes on country back roads through northern Illinois farmland. As we rounded a particular corner, we saw a 5 gallon plastic pail in the middle of the road about fifty yards ahead of us. It was lying on its side, rolling back and forth in the breeze, creating a small hazard. I could see that the bucket was empty, so I sprinted ahead of my companions, and as I came alongside the pail, I booted it off into the ditch.

When the others caught up to me, my friend Tim said, “Now I can tell everyone that I saw you kick the bucket.”

To “kick the bucket” is, of course, an English idiom meaning “to die.” If there is any humor in that anecdote it resides in the disjuncture between the literal and figurative meanings of the expression.

Think for a moment about how you might translate that story meaningfully into another language, one that doesn’t have the same idiom.

One possibility might be to find an equivalent idiom in the target language and change the situation to fit it. According to the cartoon above, “kick the calendar” is a Polish idiom for dying. As a translator, you could change the bucket in my story into a calendar. That would preserve the idiom, but it is probably, in this instance, the least satisfactory solution. It's hard to picture a calendar in the road causing a hazard for bicyclists.

A second possibility would be to translate the meaning of the idiom and footnote* its literal sense. Like this:

When the others caught up to me, my friend Tim said, “Now I can tell everyone that I saw you die.” (1)

(1) lit. “kick the bucket.”

A third possibility would be to translate the idiom literally and footnote its figurative meaning. Thus:

When the others caught up to me, my friend Tim said, “Now I can tell everyone that I saw you kick the bucket.” (2)

(2) “Kick the bucket” is an English idiom meaning “to die.”

In the case of this particular story, the third possibility commends itself, but in other instances, one of the other strategies might serve better.

A curious idiom in New Testament Greek is the use of the word σπλάγχνον (splanchnon) which literally means “bowels” but figuratively means “loving concern or sympathy, commonly rendered heart”**

The venerable King James Version of the Bible tended to render the meaning of σπλάγχνον literally, with sometimes amusing results. For instance, Philippians 1:8:

For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.

For comparison, here is the same verse from the more idiomatic Common English Bible***:

God is my witness that I feel affection for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.

Sometimes translating an idiom literally makes the meaning incomprehensible. Here's 2  Corinthians 6:12 from the KJV.

Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own bowels.

And again from the CEB:

There are no limits to the affection that we feel for you. You are the ones who placed boundaries on your affection for us.

One thing that sets English versions of the Bible apart from one another is the way that they deal with idioms.**** I'll have more to say on the subject of translations in future posts. The cartoon at the top of this blogpost came from this website.


*I like footnotes.

**Danker, Frederick William, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, University of Chicago Press, 2009, p. 326.

***To win a free copy of the Common English Bible, see this post.

****Did I mention that I like footnotes?

1 comment:

  1. A bleary-eyed and fumble-fingered blogger should not try to publish comments from a tablet first thing in the morning. It is too easy to hit "delete" and then have to cut and paste witty comments from clever readers like this one from StoryGuy:


    * I like footnotes too!