To translate idioms

Currently, I’m translating Jonathan Rasmusson’s excellent book The Agile Samurai into Swedish on behalf of the Swedish publisher Studentlitteratur. The language is informal and simple. There are very few words that I have to look up in a dictionary. A more significant challenge is the idioms.

An idiom is an expression that has a figurative meaning in common use. This meaning differs from the literal meaning. It is not a proverb or an aphorism.

There are at least 25 000 idioms in American English. How can you, as a translator, understand unfamiliar idioms? With the right keywords, you can get help from Google.

JR writes “this is your chance to lay it on the line”. I realize that this is not about to put something on a line or to add it in a queue. But I have no idea what it really means. So, I searched Google for idiom+lay+line – like this:

The first page found explains: ”lay it on the line (informal) to tell someone the truth although it will upset them. ’You’re just going to have to lay it on the line and tell her her work’s not good enough.’”

So it’s about being honest. It’s quite a difference between these two:

  1. This is your chance to put it on the line (or add it in the queue)
  2. This is your chance to be honest.

The question arises: what is the corresponding idiom in Swedish, i.e. the target language? To translate literally word by word is obviously not an option. It would be incomprehensible to Swedish readers. But there are Swedish idioms such as “var rakryggad” (keep your back straight) which roughly means the same thing.

However, just because the author used an idiom in the original text, it need not be an idiom in the translation. Many times, the best way is to descend the translators own personal literary ambitions and simply translate to a straight explanation: “This is your chance to be honest”.

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4 Responses to “To translate idioms”


  1. 1 Adam Spiers 2010-10-20 at 10.20

    IMHO a better definition is that it usually means taking a risk of some sort. Sometimes that requires being uncomfortably honest, but sometimes it has nothing to do with honesty:

    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/_/dict.aspx?word=lay on the line

    The possibility for multiple meanings highlights the difficulty of idiomatic language, especially for foreigners :)

    Love your book by the way.

  2. 2 Anders Ringqvist 2010-10-20 at 10.24

    Maybe you need to elaborate this in SV, talk about avoiding telling “en vit lögn”. Cause that´s what it´s really about. Some other words come into mind: “uppriktig” (close to your “rakryggad”) or “rättfram”.

  3. 3 Staffan Nöteberg 2010-10-20 at 14.57

    Actually, “Uppriktig” was the word I chose. Thanks for suggestions, Anders.


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