The best approach to translating proverbs

The best approach to translating proverbs


It remains difficult: translating proverbs. Almost everyone who occasionally does something in another language has to deal with it. You want to say or write something that feels very natural and obvious in your own language, but sounds uncomfortable or looks strange in the target language. Or you're just trying to translate something back into your native language and it doesn't work well. Often, then, these are established expressions that express more than the individual words mean. (To be clear: we are not talking about expressions that happen to exist in both languages, which is always a windfall, of course!) Here we will give you some tips on how to deal with these, so that you are less likely to 'fall through the basket' and you can avoid 'running into the lamp' - so no falling through the basket or walking against the lamp here!

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Translating proverbs and sayings

It has been eleven years since it came out, but Maarten H. Rijkens' book I always get my sin is still famous for its examples of literally translated proverbs and sayings. Of many of the examples given therein, it is actually no longer imaginable that people could do something so wrong. Most people understand by now that you cannot translate many proverbs literally. But how to do it?

The best strategy is often to first take a step back and ask yourself what the speaker or writer is actually trying to express. Often, proverbs are also a kind of imagery rooted in the cultural context they come from. Even a good exact translation loses much of the original meaning because it lacks the background knowledge and connotations needed to properly understand that expression. By asking what the message is, rather than what the words mean, you can better assess how to approach the translation.

Seeking alternatives

Once you know the meaning and intent behind a proverb or saying, you can sometimes come up with an alternative with a similar meaning. For example, if an English text says that someone is down in the dumps, no longer seeing the light, you can turn it into Dutch saying that the person is in 'sackcloth and ashes'. This way you can often preserve the message, tone and style of a text by deviating from it.

Translate it away

What can also be done, of course, is to find another solution, without resorting to proverbs or sayings. Sometimes it is difficult to find a comparable option or it is simply more convenient and clearer within the context of the text to omit the proverb and replace it with a description, for example. This is also known as "translating it away," because in translation you are actually making an awkward element disappear. For example, in an English-language text, you may find that someone caught between the devil and the deep blue sea is quite evocative and alliterative in English. To achieve the same effect in translation is difficult, so in order to avoid far-fetched constructions and keep the text nice and smooth, you can choose to simply place that person in an awkward or precarious situation in Dutch.

Fun fact: The saying "caught between the devil and the deep blue sea" in turn has a Dutch touch! This expression has origins in shipping, where English borrowed many words from Dutch. The "devil" here does not refer to the religious figure, but is derived from the Dutch word "deuvel," a wooden peg used in the construction of wooden ships, for example, to attach the deck beams to the hull. During long sea voyages, maintenance on the outside of a ship sometimes had to be done en route, with someone then hanging from ropes between a row of dowels and the waterline: a very risky job, where a small mistake could have fatal consequences.

Translating proverbs like a pro

All in all, then, there are broadly three solutions to translating proverbs and similar expressions. The easiest is if the same proverb exists in both languages, of course. If it does not, it is more difficult, but then you can still choose between two solutions: translate 'away' the expression with a description or find an alternative with the same meaning. The latter, of course, is the most difficult, but if you succeed, you can often be proud of the result. The challenge of such creative use of language is also what many professional translators enjoy, so if you like those puzzles too, you're in good company!

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