Logos Multilingual Portal

15 - Phraseologisms

"Only especially dramatic events, murder and manslaughter so to speak, and the worst terrors have been retained by me in their Ladino wording, and very precisely and indestructibly at that"1.

In each cultural context there are typical modes of expression that assemble words in order to signify something that is not limited to the sum of the meanings of the single words that compose them; an extra meaning, usually metaphorical, becomes part and parcel of this particular assembly. "To find oneself between hammer and anvil" does not literally mean to be in that physical condition; it means rather to be in a stressing or very difficult situation. In our everyday life we seldom find the hammer or anvil in our immediate vicinity.

Phraseologisms - or expressions that would aspire at becoming so - are formed in huge quantities, but do not always succeed. Sometimes are formed and disappear almost simultaneously. The only instances that create problems for the translator are the stable, recurrent lexical idioms, that for their metaphorical meaning do not rely only on the reader's logic at the time of reading, but also, and above all, on the value that such a metaphor has assumed in the history of the language under discussion.

The first obstacle for the translator consists in recognizing phraseologisms. If unrecognized, they are translated interpreting the meaning of the single words to the letter, with doubtful outcome, to say the least. The translator is always alert in order to catch a passage that is marked, she forms a particular sensitivity allowing her, ideally at least, to stop and think about an unusual formulation even when in her experience she never ran across that particular idiomatic expression.

Once the expression is identified, the next problem consists in decoding it. All authors agree that dictionaries are not always reliable tools in this sense. First, they don't contain all phraseologisms, then because every day new ones are formed, and lastly because dictionaries have a limited length and cannot contain all. The second problem consists in the identification of phraseologisms under a given entry: "to be between hammer and anvil" can be found under the words "between", or "anvil", or "hammer", or "be", but certainly if it is present under one entry it is absent in all the other entries, otherwise the dictionary would be too redundant (some redundancy is physiologic and functional to effective communication, in order to cover the "voids" produced by physical and/or semiotic noise).

The latter problem is easily avoidable if one has the CD edition of the dictionary, and its software for the dictionary data management allows the so called "full-text search". If, for example, the word "anvil" is searched in the Webster's New World Dictionary, the following words are referred to: anvil, bone, ear, hardy, horn, incus, middle ear, stithy "anvil, bone, ear, hardy, horn, incus, middle ear, stithy", and the word that interests me is none of these.

The third problem is the use of bilingual dictionaries. In this case, the provided solutions are not the explanation of the sense of phraseologisms that, in the compiler's intentions, should serve to translate them into the other language. Since there is never a good coincidence of meaning between phraseologisms, there is a very high risk of finding others that have different metaphors, a different meaning, and are not at all fit for specific cases.

Once the idiom has been recognized and understood, the task is not yet finished: in the contrary, one could say that has just begun. The problem is to find a translating expression.

In the most fortunate cases, in two cultures the same phraseologism has formed based on the same metaphor. It is the case of the mentioned example, "being between hammer and anvil", existing also:

in Italian: trovarsi tra l'incudine e il martello

in French: entre l'enclume et le marteau

in Russian: mezdu molotom i nakoval´nej

in German: zwischen Hammer und Amboss

in Bulgarian: mezdu čuk i nakovalnja2

and, in many other languages, I suppose. This kind of translation can be seldom done, when the opportunity occurs and when the phraseologism does not have a culture-specific connotation (otherwise it would be lost, forming a translation loss).

In other cases, the translator opts for a different idiom, based on a different metaphor, that, in the translator's opinion, conveys the same kind of contextual meaning. Vlahov and Florin use as example the idioms meaning "to be fortunate". Here are some examples:

Italian: nascere sotto la buona stella

Italian: essere nato con la camicia

French: être né coiffé

English: to be born with a silver spoon in one's mouth

English: thank one's (lucky) stars

English: to be born with a cowl on one's head

Russian: rodit´sja v soročke, v rubaske

Russian: rodit´sja pod sčastlěvoj zvezdój

In a connotative text the choice of a translating idiom can be a big problem, because the author's intention can be to use a given metaphor (for example the stars, or the shirts mentioned above), that is functional to the network of intertextual references, and to the clues willingly distributed by the author for the model reader inclined to make given conjectures, and the replacing idiom can radically shift the metaphor's tenor, misleading the metatext's reader.

If, on the other hand, what counts most is only transporting the denotative meaning, for example when the notion of "never" is expressed through a phraseologism, one can use different metaphors without great difficulties:

German: wenn die Hunde mit dem Schwanz bellen (when the hounds start barking with their tail)

English: when the moon turns to green cheese

Russian: kogda rak na gore svistnet i ryba zapoet (when the crab whistles in the mountains and the fish starts singing)

Bulgarian: koga se pokači svinja s z´´lti čehli na krusa (when the pig in yellow slippers climbs the pear tree)

Italian: alle calende greche

There is, moreover, the possibility of a non phraseological translation of an idiom. This choice is preferred when the denotative meaning of the translation act is chosen as a dominant, and one is ready to compromise as to the presentation of the expressive color, of the meaning nuances, of connotation and aphoristic form.

In the case of non phraseological rendering, there are two possibilities: one can opt for a lexical translation or for a calque. The lexical translation consists in expliciting through other words the denotative meaning of the phraseologism, giving up all the other style and connotation aspects. In the case of the "hammer and anvil" idiom, a lexical rendering could be "to be in an uneasy, stressing situation".

The calque would consist instead in translating the idiom to the letter into a culture where such a form is not recognized as an idiom: in this case the reader of the receiving culture perceives the idiom as unusual and feels the problem to interpret it in a non literal, metaphorical way. The calque has the advantage of preserving intact all second-degree, non-denotative references, that in some authors' strategy can have an essential importance. It is true that the reconstruction of the denotative meaning is left to the receiving culture's ability, but it is true as well that the metaphor is an essential, primal semiosic mechanism, that therefore belongs to all cultures.


Bibliographical references

CANETTI ELIAS Die gerettete Zunge. - Die Fackel im Ohr. - Das Augenspiel, München, Carl Hanser Verlag, 1995, ISBN 3-446-18062-1.

CANETTI ELIAS The Tongue Set Free. Remembrance of a European Childhood, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, in The Memoirs of Elias Canetti, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, ISBN 0-374-19950-7, p. 1-286.

RECKER JA. I. i>Teorija perevoda i perevodčeskaja praktika, Moskvà, Mezdunarodnye otnosenija, 1974.

VLAHOV S., FLORIN S., Neperovodimoe v perevode, Moskvà, Vysshaja shkola, 1986.

1 Canetti 1999: 12-13.
2 Vlahov e Florin: 239.