It’s throwing frogs. Earth and sand are falling. It’s raining chair legs.

Confused? The phrases are all idioms: the Polish, Japanese and Greek versions of the English idiom “it’s raining cats and dogs”. 

Thinking about idioms is a great way to understand the main challenges you face when translating an app. Use a local idiom and you’ll build an instant connection with users. Use an incorrect or mistranslated idiom and you’ll confuse people.

In this article, we look at how to approach translating idioms and what you can do to avoid the biggest translation mistakes.

Why translating idioms is tough

Idioms play a huge part in how we talk and relate to each other. They’re usually phrases or expressions that make no sense as separate words, but create a different meaning when put together. 

Idioms are rooted in the culture, history or general mindset of a society, making it hard for non-native speakers to grasp the meaning. 

In the English language alone, it’s estimated that there are around 20,000 idioms and phrases. Here are a few examples of popular idioms and their potential origins:

Pleased as punch

Meaning: To be delighted with something

Origin: The idiom comes Punch and Judy, which was a popular puppet show during the Victorian era in England. The main character, Mr Punch, was always shown to be self-satisfied with his evil actions in the performance. 

Break a leg

Meaning: Good luck!

Origin: Often used in theatre, this idiom is based on the superstition that wishing someone “good luck” is bad luck. By telling someone to break a leg, you’re wishing them bad luck – so they will end up with good luck.

Cut the mustard

Meaning: To reach a high standard or expectations

Origin: The first recorded use of the idiom was by American writer O Henry in 1907. However, “mustard” was used as a figure of speech as early as the 1600s to describe things that were strong and powerful. It then evolved to mean something that was superior.

It’s not hard to see why idioms are such a challenge for translators. They don’t translate well, particularly if you try to do it literally. It’s another reason why machine translation can produce confusing results.

How to approach idioms in localization

When you’re localizing your product, there are phrases you can translate word for word. However, you need to make a decision when it comes to translating idioms and less straightforward phrases.

Find local equivalents of idioms

Your first option is to see if there’s an equivalent idiom in your target language. 

A lot of common idioms have cultural equivalents, although the wording is very different. For example, look at the following English and Spanish idioms:

  • “The straw that broke the camel’s back” becomes “la gota que desborda el vaso” (“the drop that overflows the glass”)
  • “Two heads are better than one” becomes “cuatro ojos ven más que dos” (“four eyes see more than two”)

Surprisingly, there are a handful of idioms that can be found in most languages. The expression “to shed crocodile tears” was first written in Sanskrit around the third century, and can be found in multiple European languages (it’s “chorar lágrimas de crocodilo” in Portuguese) as well as Arabic, Swahili and Persian.

Remove the idioms altogether

It’s time-consuming for translators to find substitute idioms in a new language. A new idiom may not have exactly the same meaning or it might not be appropriate for your target market.

If you’re uncertain about how an idiom will work in a new language, it’s best to avoid it altogether.  

Don’t translate and hope for the best

Idioms are one of the reasons why it’s important to use human translators when localizing a product. 

Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of companies who learnt the lesson too late. 

An overly literal translation can be embarrassing and damage your brand – for example, Ford’s claim that each car had a “high-quality body” was translated into “high-quality corpse” when marketing in Belgium.

Make sure you don’t get lost in translation

Localization isn’t about translating language word for word – it’s about making sure your product fits seamlessly into another culture. 

Request a free consultation to find out how we could help you connect with your audience.