Idioms Translation And Cultural Differences English Language Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Abstract: As we know, language is bearer of culture and idioms are heavily culturally loaded phrases and sentences. To translate English idioms involves obstacles for Chinese features. When an idiom is being translated, we will find it often hard to be translated. While the key to translate is that its figurative meaning should be remained. In this paper, it is from living conditions, customs, religions belief and historical allusions to describe cultural differences between English and Chinese idioms, and detailed description of methods in English and Chinese idioms translation.

Key words: Language , Cultural differences , Idioms , Translation methods

1. Introduction

Language is the carrier of culture. Both English and Chinese language has a long history.They have a large number of idioms, they are implicitly, humor, serious and elegant. While idioms are a very important part of any language, and idiom translation plays an important role in translation. Idiom is a speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements.

Idioms include colloquialisms, proverbs,slangs and so on. When we translate idioms from Chinese into English or English into Chinese, we should know the cultural differences between English and Chinese idioms, and we can find the right translation methods.

the Cultural Differences between Chinese and English Idioms

Idioms translation is an intercultural activity, therefore, we should take cultural differences into consideration when we translate them. And the cultural differences between English and Chinese idioms can be classified into four types.

2.1. From living conditions

The natural environment is the basis of human living and development. China is a country with continental climate, Chinese people live in the continent of Asia. Since ancient times, China is a large agricultural country, the land is important to people's life. Therefore, there are many idioms related to wind, agriculture and land-related. Such as "æ-©è‰é™¤æ ¹" ( stamp out the root of trouble ), "风调雨顺" ( seasonable weather for crop raising ), "挥土如金"( spend money like water ) "万事俱备只欠东风" ( Everything is ready except the east wind ), "东风报春"( )Chinese people can understand its meaning, for British people it is difficult. Because in Chinese " east wind" symbolizes "spring" and " warmth ", and The United Kingdom is located in the western hemisphere north temperate zone, with marine climate. In England, " east wind "comes from the northern part of the European continent, and it symbolizes " chilly " and " unpleasant ",while " west wind " symbolizes " spring " in England, so they can not understand the real meaning of Chinese idiom.

In English there are many idioms related to water, fish, boat and so on, such as " as weak as water " (弱不禁风), " in deep water " (陷入严重困境)" to keep one's head above water "(奋力图强)"," water under the bridge " (æ- æ³•æŒ½å›žçš„过去)drink like a fish " (豪饮), " to miss the boat "(错失良机), " all at sea "(不知所措).

2.2. From customs

There are many differences between English and Chinese customs. In China, people think themselves are descendant of the Dragon, the dragon is a symbol of auspicious animals. Thus, we have dragon-related idioms contain complimentary sense. Such as "望子成龙"(To expect one's son to become an outstanding personage), "龙凤呈祥"(Harmony reigns) and so on. In western countries, they think dragon is a fire-breathing animal and it is terrifying.

In addition, people's attitude toward the dog is different. In English-speaking countries, people think the dog is a faithful animal to human, such as "You're a lucky dog"(你是一个幸运儿),"Every dog has his day"(凡人都有å¾-意æ-¥).On the contrary, the dog is a lowly animal in China. Such as "狼心ç‹-肺" ( brutal and cold-blooded ),"ç‹-眼看人低"( the damned snobbish ),"ç‹-嘴里吐不出象牙"( a dog's mouth emits no ivory ),etc.

There is another example, in Chinese culture, ox is the symbol of diligence. From ancient times, Chinese farmers went in for farming with the help of ox. So Chinese give love and praise to ox. Then in Chinese we have "力å¤å¦‚牛" when it is translated into English, it should be "as strong as a horse", Chinese people say "像牛一样勤劳", in English, people say " work like a horse ". We use different animal to express the same meaning.

In Chinese, there are some idioms related to "eat ", for example "吃不了兜着走"means find oneself in serious trouble,"吃软不吃硬"means can be persuaded by reason but not be cowed by force. Some idioms because of their distinctive national features, can not found in English corresponding expression.

2.3. From religions belief

Religious belief is an important part in culture. Different religious beliefs had different reflections in different idioms.

Chinese people believe in Buddhism and Taoism, therefore there are many Chinese idioms are related to Buddhism. Such as "借花献佛"( borrowing the opportunity ),"普度ä¼-生"( salvation of all sentient beings ),"å¹³æ-¶ä¸çƒé¦™¼Œæ€¥æ¥æŠ±ä½›è„š"( when the devil was sick, the devil a monk would be ),"道高一尺¼Œé­”高一丈"( While the priest climb a post, the devil climb ten )etc.

While in English-speaking countries, people believe in Christianity. So they have many idioms related to Christianity. Such as " as poor as a church mouse "(一贫如æ´-)" God help those who help themselves "(上帝帮助自助的人), " God sends fortune to fools "(傻人有傻福)," Go to hell "(下地狱去)," God's mill goes slowly, but it grind well "(天网恢恢ç-è€Œä¸æ¼)," wash one's hands off "(æ´-手不干)," the Day of Judgement "(末æ-¥å®¡åˆ¤) and so on.

2.4. From historical allusions

An important part of historical culture is historical allusion, and England and China have a large number of idioms originated from historical allusion. These idioms are simple but far-reaching, and we often can not be understood from the literal meaning.

In Chinese we have "守株待兔"( wait for windfalls ),"亡羊补牢"( better late than never ),"æ‹”è‹-助长"( spoil things by excessive enthusiasm )¼Œ"螳螂捕蝉¼Œé»„雀在后"( Mantis catch a cicada, siskin is hind.),"四面楚歌"( be pounded on all sides )etc.

Most English allusive idioms come from the Bible and Greek and Roman mythology. Such as " Achilles' heel "(唯一致命的弱点)," Penelope's web "(永远完不成的工作)," The Trojan Horse "(木马计¼›æš-è-çš„危险)," Meet one's Waterloo "(一败涂地)," swan song "(绝唱)," arrow of Cupid "(丘比特之箭)," A Pandora's box "(潘多拉之盒¼Œå³ç¾éš¾ã€éº»çƒ¦ã€ç¥¸å®³çš„根源)," The apple of discord "(祸患¼›äº‰ç«¯)and so on.

Principle and methods of idiom translation

Idioms are usually short in form but profound in sense. Each idiom bears an image and a figurative meaning. Idioms translation should be faithful. " Faithful " means the Chinese version must be faithful to the English idiom at least in figurative sense, and English idioms are not exactly equal to the Chinese idioms in figurative sense though they appear to be. For example," pull one's leg " is not equal to "拉后腿", " move heaven and earth " is not equal to "翻天覆地" and " child's play " is not equal to "儿戏". In order to be faithful in translation ,we should convey the original figurative meanings and sacrifice the images. Therefore, " pull one's leg " can be rendered into Chinese as "å-笑某人"," move heaven and earth " can be rendered into "尽力" and " child's play " can be rendered into Chinese as "易如反掌". All these renditions are faithful to the original figurative meanings.

So each idiom bears an image and a figurative meaning. An English idiom and a Chinese idiom which are same in image maybe different in figurative meaning. If we can transfer both the image and the figurative meaning by literal translation, we should use literal translation. If we can not, we should better keep the figurative meaning and sacrifice the image. Then, we should use free translation. Generally speaking, the common methods of translating idioms are the following types:

1. Literal translation

2. Free translation

3. Literal translation + Free translation

4. Adapted translation

3.1. Literal translation

A literal translation is a translation that follows closely the form of the source language. If the image and the figurative meaning are not contradictory to each other, then both of them can be retained in the translation, we should make efforts to reduce the loss in translation and use literal translation method as much as possible. For instance, " time is money "is translated into "æ-¶é-´å°±æ˜¯é‡‘é’±", which preserves its original image and figurative meaning.

There are many idioms of this kind:

In English,

1) Forbidden fruit is sweet. 禁果分å¤-甜。

2) In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king. 盲人国中¼Œç‹¬çœ¼ç°é›„。

3) If you run after two hares, you will catch neither. 同æ-¶è¿½ä¸¤å…”¼Œå…¨éƒ½æŠ“不到。

4) Half a loaf is better than no bread. 有半å-面包总比没有好。

5) The Trojan horse. 特洛伊木马。

6) Blood is thicker than water. 血浓于水。

7) Misfortunes never come singly. 祸不单行。

8) An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. 以眼还眼¼Œä»¥ç‰™è¿˜ç‰™ã€‚

In Chinese,

1)明枪易躲¼Œæš-箭难防。It is easy to dodge a spear in the open, but hard to guard against an arrow shot from hiding.

2)城é-¨å¤±ç«¼Œæ®ƒåŠæ± é±¼ã€‚A fire on the city wall brings disaster to the fish in the moat.

3)路遥知马力¼Œæ-¥ä¹…èäººå¿ƒã€‚As a long road tests a horse's strength, so a long task proves a person's heart.

4)初生牛犊不怕虎。New-born calves make little of tigers.

5)远水不è£è¿‘渴。Distant water can't quench present.

As the language roots of the cultural is different, literal translation is likely to be ambiguous and vague. In this case, we should add annotation. Such as:

"三个臭皮匠¼Œèµ›è¿‡è¯¸è‘›äº®" We know "Chukeh Liang" was a famous person in Chinese history, but maybe some western people have nothing about him. We can translate it into " Three cobblers withe their wits combined equal Chukeh Liang, the master mind " .

"班é-¨å¼„æ-" ( show off one's proficiency with axe before Lu Ban, the master carpenter )

And in English, " to carry coals to New Castle " (运煤到纽卡æ-¯å°”¼›æŒ‡å¤šæ­¤ä¸€ä¸¾¼Œçº½å¡æ-¯å°”是英国的äºç…¤ä¸­å¿ƒ)

3.2. Free translation

Free translation means transmitting the figurative meaning in the original English idiom by means of free translation. And it usually loses the original image, like the translation of the English idiom " Call a spade a spade ", whose image and figurative meaning can not be accepted by the Chinese readers at the same time if they are literally rendered into Chinese as "把铲子叫铲子". So the translator can put it into Chinese as "直言不讳", which is readily accepted by the Chinese readers.

There are many idioms of this kind:

In Chinese,

1)打开天çª-说亮话。Frankly speaking.

2)"东æ-½æ•ˆé¢¦" is a Chinese idiom, for Chinese people, it is easy to understand, and if we translate it into " Dong Shi imitates Xi Shi ", it will very difficult for western people to understand. Because they maybe don't know Dong Shi and Xi Shi. So we can translate it into " crude imitation with ludicrous effect "

3)失之东隅¼Œæ”¶ä¹‹æ¡‘榆。What one loses on the swings one gets back on the roundabouts. ( If we use method of lateral translation," lose where the sun rises and gain where the sun set", the readers will can not understand it. )

4)塞翁失马¼Œç„‰çŸ¥éžç¦¼ŸA loss may turn out to be a gain. ( Due to the readers don't know the background of this idiom, we can not translate into " When the old man on the frontier lost his mare, who could have guessed it was a blessing it was a blessing in disguise?" )

5)庆父不死¼Œé²éš¾æœªå·²ã€‚There will always be trouble until the trouble-maker is removed. ( If we translate it into " Until Qing Fu is done away with, the crisis in the state of Lu will not be over ", the readers will not understand a person's name and country name. )

6)此地æ- é“¶ä¸‰ç™¾ä¸¤ã€‚A guilty person gives himself away by conspicuously protesting his innocence. ( We can not translate it into " No 300 taels of silver buried here. ")

In English,

1) a skeleton in the cupboard (家丑)

2) It is an ill wind that blows nobody good. 对人人都有害的事¼Œå¤©ä¸‹å°‘有。( It can not be translated into "不给任何人带来好处的风的确是恶风。")

3) Every man has a fool in his sleeve. 人人都有糊涂的æ-¶å€™ã€‚( It can not be translated into "人人è¢-子里都装着个傻瓜。")

4) When Greek meets Greek, then comes the tug of war. 两雄相争¼Œå…¶æ--必烈。( It can not be translated into "希腊人遇上希腊人¼Œå®šæœ‰ä¸€åœºå¥½æ--。")

Some idioms from the religious literature, usually we need to use free translation. Such as: "å››å¤çš†ç©º"( All physical existence is vanity),"六根清净"( free from human desires and passions ),"因缘"( principal and subsidiary causes ),"红尘"( human society ) and so on.

3.3. Literal translation and Free translation

This method means to transfer both the figurative meaning and image of source language idiom into target language with the help of free translation. This translation method can help retain the original figurative meaning and image, which can be accepted by the target language readers.

In Chinese:

火çƒçœ‰æ¯› the fire is singeing the eyebrows --- a desperate situation

负荆请罪 proffer a birch and ask for a flogging --- offer a humble apology

班é-¨å¼„æ- show off one's skill with the axe before Lu Ban the master carpenter --- display one's slight skill before an expert

In English:

A bull in a china shop 公牛é-¯è¿›ç“·å™¨åº---- 肆意捣乱

The cat weeps over the mouse. 猫哭老鼠---假慈悲

There is no rose without a thorn.玫瑰皆有刺---乐中比有苦

Every flow has its ebb.潮有涨落æ-¥---人又盛衰æ-¶

3.4. Adapted translation

Some English idioms are found exact counterparts in Chinese which are dissimilar to them in images. In this case we can use these idiomatic Chinese expressions to replace the English idioms. For examples:

In English,

1) He that sows the wind will reap the whirlwind. 玩火者必自焚。

2) Like begets like. 龙生龙¼Œå‡¤ç”Ÿå‡¤ã€‚

3) Many straws may bind an elephant. 烂麻搓成绳¼Œä¹Ÿèƒ½æ‹‰åƒæ-¤ã€‚

4) When shepherds quarrel, the wolf has a winning game. 鹬蚌相争¼Œæ¸”翁å¾-利。

In Chinese,

1) 半瓶醋¼Œå‡ºäº‹æ•…。A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

2) å°‘èå¤šæ€ªã€‚Wonder is the daughter of ignorance.

3) 三思而后行。Look before you leap.

4) 如鱼å¾-水。Like a duck to water.

5) 有其父必有其子。Like father like son.


Idioms are a very important part of any language. So necessary knowledge of cultural differences is indispensable to the translation of idioms. Each idiom bears an image and a figurative meaning. When we are translating an idiom, it's a basic requirement that we should remain its figurative meaning. For the translator, he must have a good command of English and Chinese language and cultures.