Why it is so difficult to translate proverbs and idioms?

The grass is greener on the other side of the fence.

I watched Shaun the sheep with my children on Kika. This is the acronym for Kinderkabel, a German TV channel for children. The translation into German did not make any sense in my mother tongue.

However, we have a similar proverb in German, that is much better suited.

Die Kirschen von Nachbars Garten schmecken immer ein bisschen süßer.

The translation into English would be: ‘The cherries in neighbour’s garden taste always a little bit sweeter.’ But this translation would not make sense in the film Shaun the sheep.

Often, we realise, that the actual and true meaning goes missing in translations. It is lost in transition.

It gets even more complicated, when we are dealing with gender specific proverbs.

Once a daughter always a daughter.

I encountered this proverb the first time, when I had to take time off work to look after my mum, who was terminally ill. The daughters seem to carry the burden of looking after the elderly parents more than the sons. This was true in my case. But due to my flexible job arrangements I was also more able to fulfill this duty of care.

Some proverbs are not gender specific in the target language but are gender specific in the native language or vica versa.

Liebe geht durch den Magen.

The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

My husband cooked me a Valentine’s Day dinner. I could use the German proverb but the English one has to be altered into: ‘The way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach’. This translation does make sense but does sound a bit odd or at least unusual.

When translating into another language we have to consider the cultural implications.

I would not touch him with a barge-pole.

Ich würde ihn nicht einmal mit der Feuerzange anfassen.

This proverb can also be used gender nonspecific. ‘I would not touch it with a barge-pole.’

A barge-pole was used to propel a barge and to fend off obstacles.

Not only proverbs are difficult to translate but also idioms.

I was over the moon.

The meaning is ‘I was very pleased.’

Ich war im siebten Himmel.

Other idioms are ‘my other half’ translated in German ‘meine bessere Hälfte‘ when referring to the husband or the wife.

But some proverbs or idioms are very similar in both languages.

Einem geschenkten Gaul schaut man nicht ins Maul.

Never look a gift horse into the mouth.

When in doubt you can always refer to the internet. In spoken conversations it is advisable to recruit a language specialist.

Proverbs and idioms tell us a lot about the mind frame in each culture.

Published by Maria

Translation and interpreting services

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