Idioms and Lost Meanings in Translation

By Danielle Gerber, Multilingual Proofreader for The Geo Group Corporation.

An idiom is a phrase in which the words together have a meaning that is different from the dictionary definitions of the individual words.  In other words, idioms are expressions that cannot be understood literally.  Idiomatic phrases are often difficult for non-English speakers to understand and can easily lose their meaning in translation, especially when translated by a non-native speaker, or if the country doesn’t have a comparable expression.

The following common English idiomatic phrases have been explained in English, then put into Google Translate to get a translation, then back translated into English again to demonstrate how well the machine translation explains the phrase.

English:  A penny saved is a penny earned

This saying means that when you save money instead of spending it, it is almost the same as earning money, because you’ll have extra cash instead of an empty pocket.

Vietnamese Translation:

A penny lưu là một penny được

Back translates to:

A penny saved is a penny was

Russian Translation:

Пенни сохранить это заработанный пенни

Back translates to:

Penny keep it earned a penny

English:  A stitch in time can save nine

People use this saying to express that it’s better to take care of a possible problem before it gets worse and requires a more complicated solution.

Arabic Translation:

ويمكن لغرزة في الوقت المناسب انقاذ تسعة

Back translates to:

They can stitch in time save nine

Korean Translation:

시간에 바느질이 아홉을 구할 수

Back translates to:

Sewing at the time of the 9 available

English:  A watched pot never boils

This saying means that when you are anxiously waiting for something to happen, it always seems to take longer.

Serbian Translation:

Гледао лонац не своди

Back translates to:

Watched pot does not reduce

Japanese Translation:

監視鍋が沸騰しない

Back translates to:

The pot does not boil monitoring

English: Air your dirty laundry in public

To talk about your private disagreements or embarrassing matters in public, usually while quarreling.

Ukrainian Translation:

повітря свої брудні сміття з хати

Back translates to:

Dirty air their dirty linen

Malay Translation:

kumbahan hawa kotor anda di depan umum

Back translates to:

Conditioning your dirty sewage in public

English: Don’t get your knickers in a twist

When your knickers are in a twist, you are angry and snappish over something trivial.

Latvian Translation:

Nelietojiet jūsu biksītes ar vērpjot

Back translates to:

Do not take your knickers with a twist

Chinese (Simplified) Translation:

不要在一个扭曲你的内裤

Back translates to:

Do your underwear in a twist

As comical as these examples might be, they give you an idea of what can happen when you opt to use machine translations.  A machine translation will work if you simply want to know the translation for “pot” in almost any language, but when you want to say “A watched pot never boils,” and actually get your true meaning across, it’s best to leave the translations to the professionals—native speakers with field-specific experience.

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