Handling phraseological units

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Handling phraseological units


Phraseological units are figurative set expressions often described as "idioms". Such units have an important role to play in human communication. They produce a considerable expressive effect for, besides conveying information, they appeal to the reader's emotions, his aesthetic perception, his literary and cultural associations. Whenever the author of the source text uses an idiom, it is the translator's duty to try and reproduce it with the utmost fidelity.

Now an idiom's semantics are a complex entity and there are five aspects of its meaning that will influence the translator's choice of an equivalent in the target language. They are the idiom's figurative meaning, its literal sense, its emotive character, stylistic register and national colouring. The figurative meaning is the basic element of the idiom's semantics. Thus "red tape" means bureaucracy, "to kick the bucket" means to die, and "to wash dirty linen in public" means to disclose one's family troubles to outsiders. The figurative meaning is inferred from the literal sense. "Red tape", "to kick the bucket", and "to wash dirty linen in public" also refer, respectively, to a coloured tape, an upset pail and a kind of laundering, though in most cases this aspect is subordinate and serves as a basis for the metaphorical use.

Idioms can be positive, negative or neutral. It is clear that "to kill two birds with one stone" is good, "to find a mare's nest" is a ludicrous mistake while "Rome was not built in a day" is a neutral statement of fact. They can also differ in their stylistic usage: they may be bookish (to show one's true colours) or colloquial (to be a pain in the neck). Besides, an idiom can be nationally coloured, that is include some words which mark it as the product of a certain nation. For instance, "to set the Thames on fire" and "to carry coals to Newcastle" are unmistakably British.

The complex character of the idiom's semantics makes its translation no easy matter. But there are some additional factors which complicate the task of adequate identification, understanding and translation of idioms. First, an idiom can be mistaken for a free word combination, especially if its literal sense is not "exotic" (to have butterflies in one's stomach) but rather trivial (to measure one's length, to let one's hair down). Second, a SL idiom may be identical in form to a TL idiom but have a different figurative meaning. Thus, the English "to lead smb. by the nose" implies a total domination of one person by the other (cf. the Russian «водить за нос») and "to stretch one's legs" means to take a stroll (cf. the Russian «протянуть ноги»). Third, a SL idiom can be wrongly interpreted due to its association with a similar, if not identical TL unit. For instance, "to pull the devil by the tail", that is to be in trouble, may be misunderstood by the translator under the influence of the Russian idioms «держать бога за бороду» or «поймать за хвост жар-птицу». Fourth, a wrong interpretation of a SL idiom may be caused by another SL idiom similar in form and different in meaning. Cf. "to make good time" and "to have a good time". Fifth, a SL idiom may have a broader range of application than its TL counterpart apparently identical in form and meaning. For instance, the English "to get out of hand" is equivalent to the Russian«OT6nTbcaoT рук» and the latter is often used to translate it:


The children got out of hand while their parents were away.

В отсутствии родителей дети совсем отбились от рук.


But the English idiom can be used whenever somebody or something gets out of control while the Russian idiom has a more restricted usage:


What caused the meeting to get out of hand?

Почему собрание прошло так неорганизованно?


The possibility of misinterpreting an idiom in the source text calls for a great deal of vigilance on the part of the translator.

There are four typical methods to handle a SL idiom in the translating process.

First, the translator can make use of a TL idiom which is identical to the SL idiom in all five aspects of its semantics, e.g. "to pull chestnuts out of the fire for smb." — таскать каштаны из огня для кого-либо.

Second, the SL idiom can be translated by a TL idiom which has the same figurative meaning, preserves the same emotive and stylistic characteristics but is based on a different image, that is, has a different literal meaning, e.g. "make hay while the sun shines" — куй железо, пока горячо.

Third, the SL idiom can be translated by reproducing its form word-for-word in TL, e.g. "People who live in glass houses should not throw stones." - Люди, живущие в стеклянных домах, не должны бросать камни.

Fourth, instead of translating the SL idiom, the translator may try to explicate its figurative meaning, so as to preserve at least the main element of its semantics.

Selecting the appropriate method of translation the translator should take into account the following considerations:

1. Translating the SL idiom by an identical TL idiom is, obviously, the best way out. However, the list of such direct equivalents is rather limited. The translator has a good chance of finding the appropriate TL idiom if the SL idiom, is, so to speak, international, that is, if it originated in some other language, say Latin or Greek, and was later borrowed by both SL and TL. Cf. the English "Achilles' heel" and the Russian «Ахиллесова пята». Equivalent idioms may be borrowed in more recent periods, too, e.g. "the game is not worth the candle" — игра не стоит свеч (both borrowed from French). Even if the translator has managed to find an equivalent idiom in TL he may not be able to use it in his translation because of a difference in connotation. For example, the English "to save one's skin" can be replaced with the Russian «спасти свою шкуру» when its meaning is negative. But it may also have a positive connotation, which its Russian counterpart has not and then the translator will have to look for another way:


Betty saved Tim's skin by typing his report for him.

Бетти выручила Тима, напечатав за него доклад.


2. Whenever the translator fails to find an identical TL idiom he should start looking for an expression with the same figurative meaning but a different literal meaning. Cf. "to get out of bed on the wrong side" -встать с левой ноги. Here the change in the literal meaning of the idiom does not detract much from its effect. Two additional factors, however, should be taken into consideration. First, here again the translator should take care to preserve the original emotional or stylistic characteristics. So, the English "Jack of all trades" and the Russian «мастер на все руки» both refer to a person who may turn his hand to anything. However, the Russian idiom should not be used to translate the English one, as they are quite different emotionally. In English "Jack of all trades" is derogatory, for he is "master of none", while the Russian saying implies that the man can do many different things well. Similarly, the English "can the leopard change his spots", which is a literary idiom, should not be translated by the Russian «черного кобеля не отмоешь добела» which is highly colloquial, verging on the vulgar. Second, this method of translation should not be used if the TL idiom is distinctly nationally marked. As a rule the translation is presumed to represent what has been said by the foreign author of ST and he is not expected to use definitely Russian idioms such as, for instance, «ездить в Тулу со своим самоваром».

3. A word-for-word translation of the SL idiom is not possible unless the Russian reader will be able to deduce its figurative meaning. Therefore a caique of the English idiom "a skeleton in the cupboard" will be counterproductive, while "to put the cart before the horse" can be well rendered as «ставить телегу впереди лошади».

4. Obviously an explication cannot reproduce the semantics of the SL idiom in a satisfactory way and should be used only in the absence of a better alternative. Cf. "to cut off with a shilling" and «лишить наследства» or "to dine with Duke Humphrey and «остаться без обеда».


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