The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Mar 30, 2013

Translating Idioms (guest essay by missionary John R. Himes)

With final preparations for my dissertation defense under way, I thought this would be the perfect time for another guest essay by my father, missionary John Himes (who is currently involved in a new translation of the Greek New Testament into Japanese). Actually, his essays are more popular than mine on my own blog, but if you think about it, somebody who has spent 30+ years on the mission field should be heard before some young whipper-snapper who has yet to finish school and get a life!  :)

What Shall We Do with Those Idioms?
By John R. Himes

I know it’s a poor pun, but my wife enjoys saying, “Are you calling me an idiot?” every time I get linguistic on her and use the word idiom. This essay will tackle how to translate idioms, but first we need to define what one is. This brings up an interesting problem. The usual definition of an “idiom” says that it has two or more words. But can an idiom have only one word?

Nida and Taber define it this way: “idiom: an expression consisting of several words and whose meaning cannot be derived from the meaning of the individual words, e.g. kick the bucket for die; also called exocentric expression” (Eugene Nida and Charles Taber, The Theory and Practice of Translation, 203). A dictionary of linguistics has: “A set expression in which two or more words are syntactically related, but with a meaning like that of a single lexical unit: e.g. ‘spill the beans’ in Someone has spilled the beans about the bank raid, or ‘put one’s foot in it’ in Her husband can never make a speech without putting his foot in it“ (P. H. Matthews, Oxford Concise Dictionary of Linguistics, 2nd ed., 183). 

Another definition doesn’t specify more than one word, but gets the definition wrong: “Idiom: (1) Any expression peculiar to a language, conveying a distinct meaning, not necessarily explicable by, occasionally even contrary to, the general accepted grammatical rules” (Dictionary of Linguistics, Mario Pei & Frank Gaynor, p. 95). What is wrong here is that an idiom must be defined in terms of semantics, not grammar (though we must admit their point in that occasionally an idiom will defy conventional grammar).

Oddly enough, even a book of idioms proclaims that an idiom must be two or more words. Harold C. Whitford (Handbook of American Idioms and Idiomatic Usage, 183) says in his preface that, "An idiom...consists of more than one word." However, in the book Whitford gives many one-word idioms, such as "arms" (weapons), "axe" (used when firing someone), "baloney," etc.

So now we need to clarify what an idiom is. First of all, note that idioms are culture specific, or "culture bound" as secular translation scholar Susan Bassnett puts it (Translation Studies, 3rd ed., 30). For example, consider some idioms from the Old West, such as "men with the bark on" (tough men) and "salty" (good in a fight), easily found in western novels like those of Louis L'Amour. This illustrates how an idiom comes into existence from some aspect of the culture. These idioms are not used in modern America except for a few places out West where the Old West culture lingers on.  

Secondly, note that an idiom is a word or words which may carry a very different meaning than the literal meaning.  So in the examples from Whitford, the idiom “arms” does not mean human appendages but weapons, “axe” does not mean an edged weapon or tool but the firing of a person from a job, and “baloney” does not mean a sandwich meat but is an expression of doubt. This characteristic is what makes idioms fascinating but often hard to translate. The translator is not able to begin from a word-for-word meaning, but must carefully determine the non-literal meaning of the idiom in the original text.

Koine Greek has many idioms, as is well documented in books by C. F. D. Moule and Stewart Custer. However, very few writers on Bible translation have dealt with how to translate idioms. The only mention of the problem I can find in my library is by Eugene Nida and Charles Taber, who write, “The adjustments are quite understandably of three types: (a) from idioms to nonidioms (sic), (b) from idioms to idioms, and (c) from nonidioms (sic) to idioms” (The Theory and Practice of Translation, 106. There is about one page on the problem in this text). However, this statement misses the possibility of translating an idiom as is, even in cases where the target language does not have the same idiom. In rare cases an idiom from the source language can make sense in the target language. Let’s consider that possibility first, since it may be the most ideal rendering, assuming a genuinely equivalent meaning in the target language idiom. 

In a culture with bilingual people, sometimes an idiom will migrate directly from one language to another. In such cases one may translate the idiom literally and have it make sense. For example, “in Canadian French the idiom ‘to talk through one’s hat’ has acquired the equivalent ‘parler a travers son chapeau’” (“A Methodology for Translation” by Jean-Paul Vinay and Jean Darbelnet, in The Translation Studies Reader, 2nd ed., ed. by Lawrence Venuti, p. 134). Since many in Canada are bilingual in French and English, this idiom migrated successfully with almost exactly the same meaning.

A Bible example of the migrating idiom is “kick against the ox-goads” (Acts 9:5, 26:14), which is an idiom meaning “resist leading,” understandable literally in English through Greek from Hebrew. The KJB translates it literally, as does the HCSB, NIV and ESV (all three of which render “kick against the goads”), and many other versions. (Note that only the TR has the phrase in 9:5, but all Greek texts have it in 26:14.) This is a case when an idiom can be translated literally and retain its meaning. The original idiom migrated from Hebrew to Greek, and then the Greek idiom was translated into English with no loss of or change in meaning.

There are other cases where the original idiom can be retained in a language with no loss of meaning. This is only true in cases when the idiom makes sense outside of its cultural milieu. One example of this is the idiom common in the teachings of Christ, o ecwn wta akouein akouetw, “The one with ears, let him hear.” Though it may seem strange to our English-tuned ears, it makes sense, since it puts extra emphasis on hearing, thus meaning to the non-Greek ear something like, “You had better listen, this is important!”

Another possibility is translating an idiom with a non-idiom. A Greek example of when this is necessary is in 1 Peter 2:24, where we have taiV amartiaiV apogenomenoi (“being dead to sins”). It’s very hard to make this idiom work literally in Japanese, and one may question its literal rendering in English. It just doesn’t make sense in an Asian language, and may even steer the reader completely away from the authorial intent! So in our new Japanese translation we had to choose a wording that made sense. So, we have translated this into Japanese as 罪と係わりを断った私たち (refusing connection with sin), an idiom into a non-idiom.  

Again, the HCSB translates an idiom with a non-idiom in 2 Cor. 2:17,  kaphleuonteV ton logon tou qeou (“dilute the Word of God”) with “market God’s message for profit.” This idiom refers to the practice of wine merchants illicitly adding water to their product to make more money. This rendering does carry the original meaning over into the target language, but perhaps it loses some of the flavor of the original idiom. A possible rendering that keeps the flavor of the original idiom is, “huckster the Word of God.”

A third possibility is translating an idiom with an equivalent idiom. This is another good solution, better perhaps than translating an idiom with a non-idiom, since there is a certain nuance, perhaps a feeling the reader has when he reads, in the very fact that an idiom is used. (We have seen how this happened with the Hebrew idiom, “kick against the goads,” was translated into Greek.) Once again semantic equivalency is still necessary. 

According to secular scholar Susan Bassnett, Hilaire Belloc gave this guideline for translating idioms in 1932: “The translator should render idiom by idiom ‘and idioms of their nature demand translation into another form from that of the original.' Belloc cites the case of the Greek exclamation 'by the dog!', which, if rendered literally, becomes merely comic in English" (Translation Studies. 3rd ed., 2002, p. 116). So, while Belloc believed the best way to translate an idiom is with another idiom, he realized that the original idiom often may not be carried into the target language, but requires an idiom equivalent in meaning.

Basnett gives another example from the Italian: “The translation of idioms takes us a stage further in considering the question of meaning and translation, for idioms, like puns, are culture bound. The Italian idiom menare il can per l’aia provides a good example of the kind of shift that takes place in the translation process. Translated literally, the sentence Giovanni sta menando il can per l’aia. becomes John is leading his dog around the threshing floor. The image conjured up by this sentence is somewhat startling and, unless the context referred quite specifically to such a location, the sentence would seem obscure and virtually meaningless. The English idiom that most closely corresponds to the Italian is to beat about the bush, also obscure unless used idiomatically, and hence the sentence correctly translated becomes John is beating around the bush” (Basnett, 30-31).

Finally, let’s consider translating from a non-idiom into an idiom. HCSV translates a Greek non-idiom (aporoumenoV de egw, the verb being aporew) with an idiom in Acts 25:20, “Since I was at a loss . . . .” One wonders why an idiom was chosen to translate a non-idiom here when a fairly literal translation (“I was in doubt”) would accurately convey the meaning. Then one looks at the lexicons and learns that “at a loss” is given as a meaning in almost all of them! (I checked BAGD, Abbot-Smith, the Fribergs’ Analytical Lexicon, Louw-Nida, etc.) So obviously it is not a mistake to render “at a loss” here. Indeed, it might be argued that “at a loss” is a good rendering with a vivid meaning. But we could then ask, is vividness the right strategy here, since the original is a formal letter from one ruler to another? It seems obvious that translating from a non-idiom to an idiom should be carefully considered based on the context before making a final decision.

So, as can be seen, the translation of an idiom is not an easy task. The meaning of the original idiom and its possible renderings should be carefully considered in every case. Hopefully this brief essay will be a help in that regard to translators and future translators.


  1. David Barnhart4/2/13, 3:26 PM

    Interesting article. I've always wondered whether those who insist on extreme literalism in translation (even of idioms) have ever really had to deal with speaking another language and having an idiom absolutely not translate and cause laughter, embarrassment, or even offense!

  2. True story (Dad, correct me if I get any of the details wrong): John R. Rice once went to Japan in the 50s and preached on a "bootlegger" who got saved and "cleaned up his business." The poor Japanese translator had no clue what those idioms were and translated it "A shoe salesman got saved and did spring cleaning at his place of work."