If you have ever tried to learn a foreign language you may well have been, at some time or other, introduced to idioms. Idioms are a group of words that have a meaning that is different from each word on its own. For new language learners, idioms simply do not make sense.
For example, consider “ahead of the curve”. This does not mean you are in advance of an actual curve; it means that you are more advanced than the competition. And “back to square one” does not have anything to do with counting squares; it means to start over again, usually because of a failure.
Every language has idioms and the reason we are taught them is so that we develop a deeper understanding of the language and culture in question. If we can use idioms in a target language, it means that we can speak like a native.
There are people who believe that idioms should not be used in business text, but the reality is that business idioms are in everyday use. They may not be a good idea in formal situations, but you may well come across them in corporate communications, so it is important that the person who is translating for your company is able to pick them up and understand them.
Just have a look at this small list and ask yourself how many times you have seen or used these idioms in staff memos or emails:
• Raise the bar – Set higher standards
• Red tape – Rules, procedures or regulations which make doing business difficult
• See eye to eye – Agree with the person with whom you are negotiating
• A ballpark number – A guess at how much something costs
• A hot potato – A topic of much controversy; a project or responsibility that no one may want to hold onto for long
It is impossible to translate an idiom word for word because the phrase itself would not make any sense. Take the idiom “Do not rock the boat”. It does not literally mean you have a boat and you are being told not to move it. It means do not upset the situation, or cause any problems. As such, it is impossible to translate using a machine translation because you will get the literal, not the idiomatic, meaning of the phrase. Even if the words of the literal translation make sense, there is a risk of being misunderstood or sounding idiotic rather than idiomatic.
A professional translator will have an in-depth understanding of the target language and will understand the idiom. In common languages such as Spanish or Brazilian Portuguese, the translator will probably find an idiom that fits the target language with the same or similar meaning. In some languages it may be impossible to translate the idiom, which is why writers are asked not to use them if at all possible. However, your translation specialist will be able to inform you of this, so that you can revise the text being translated.
If you are going to put your business on a global platform, it is not only important to translate, but also to localize. Localization really shows that you are speaking the language of the target locale. Using idioms can help demonstrate this, especially if you are speaking to customers informally on Facebook and Twitter or other social media.
If you are writing corporate emails or correspondence to foreign clients that you know is going to be read in English, then keep idioms to the bare minimum and, if you do use them, maybe it is a good idea to add a note explaining their meaning for the benefit of your foreign clients.
Whatever language you need to use to communicate with clients from abroad, make sure that you use a translation company that uses professional translation specialists who know the language inside out and have lived and worked in the country you are addressing.
Here at Terralingua, we supply translation support to a number of the world’s top brands. We have a great deal of experience in localization and we can help you to globalize your business. Visit our website and talk to us about your translation requirements.