Sunday, April 17, 2011

Difficulty of Understanding Idioms

Idioms are expressions that have a meaning different from the literal one. They make the language richer and more colorful. The ability of understanding idioms is essential to comprehend the meaning of what is being communicated. An idiom may seem incomprehensible to someone who is not familiar with the language in which it is spoken. Despite the progress of computers N. Osler, a linguist whom I talked about in my previous article, recognizes the weakness of translation as it can never convey the meaning of idioms, puns and jokes. To prove his point he reports the misunderstanding that happened in 1990 among the delegates of the European Union. Those who read the report on a committee’s work in French judged it very satisfactory, while those who read the English translation believed the project had been a failure.
This difference of opinions was caused by the inadequate translation of the French word “insuffisant”which was translated as “inadequate” instead of “insufficient.”
I couldn’t agree with Osler more as idioms defy direct translation. Think of the expression
 “it rains cats and dogs”its literal translation in any other language would be laughable.
Having lived in Montreal, a vibrant multilingual society, I gradually developed an interest for idioms and sayings of the various languages spoken in the community at large, thus realizing that this frequent and extensive use of idioms is a natural way of speaking for a native speaker of a language. I find that idiomatic expressions are fascinating and their imagery intriguing. Who hasn’t heard these curious”expressions: “to be dressed to the nines”,”to bark up the wrong tree”,”to kick the bucket”, “go fly a kite”, “to be at sixes and sevens”,”to go scot free”,
“to fly off the handle.”
In my  next article I shall compare these idioms and others to French, Italian and Spanish.