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Translation of English Idioms Into Arabic

Dr. Abdul-Fattah Abu-Ssaydeh

English Department
University of Sharjah


This paper consists of three parts; the first part examines the definition of “idiom” as a
technical term, primarily from a translational perspective, and the strategies usually
employed by Arab translators when translating English idioms. The second part
analyses the Arabic translations given in a sample of two hundred and fifty-three
English idioms in terms of strategies and the significance of their frequency. This
analysis reveals four important things: 1) Statistically, the most common strategy
applied is paraphrasing, followed closely by literal translations and semantic
equivalence, with omission, compensation and other strategies being of significantly
less importance; 2) Literal translation has allowed certain English idioms to become
part of Arabic lexis; 3) A disproportionately large number of the translations are
literal and, therefore, sound “foreign” or are deemed void of sense to the Arab reader,
4) Literal (and therefore erroneous) translations in the target language arise primarily
from the failure of the translator to decipher the meaning of the idiom in question. The
last part revisits literal translation in order to understand its nature, reasons for its
prevalence, its effect on the translated text and its impact on the Arabic language.

1. Introduction: What is an Idiom?

In order to avoid any possible confusion arising from the different senses in which
idiom-related terms are used and their scope, let us begin by defining our central
terms. Firstly, the term “idiomatic” is used in one of three senses:

a) As a property of discourse; a piece of discourse is described as idiomatic if it

sounds “natural” or nativelike. Thus, a foreign learner’s speech or text will be
“idiomatic” if it resembles that produced by the native speaker;
b) Lexical combinations which occur as grammatical units in the language like
phrasal verbs. This is the sense in which Cowie (1975, 1983) uses it;
c) A general term equivalent to multi-word units or phrasal expressions. In this
sense, the following expressions would be “idiomatic”: at last, before long, be
broke, drop by, get the hang of it, how on earth, pain in the neck.

In many cases, the terms idiom and idiomatic expressions are used
interchangeably, especially in language books and exercises. (This is particularly
true of internet sites which deal with idioms and idiomatic expressions). The same
term has a different sense in translation. “Idiomatic translation”, says Larson, is
one “ which has the same meaning as the source language but is expressed in the
natural form of the receptor language.” (Quoted in Shuttleworth and Cowie (1997,

p.73) “Idiom”, on the other hand, may refer to a language or a style of expression
which characterizes a certain group of language users.

None of this is of direct concern to us. In this paper, we are primarily concerned with
the complex multi-word lexicogrammatical phenomenon whose members have been
established by usage (i.e. have become institutionalized) and display certain syntactic
and semantic properties. Longman Idioms Dictionary (1998) defines the idiom as “a
sequence of words which has a different meaning as a group from the meaning it
would have if you understand each word separately.” (p.vii) Lewis provides another
concise dictionary-like definition: an idiom, he states, is “ a multi-word lexical item
where the meaning of the whole is not directly related to the meanings of the
individual words.” (Lewis: 1998, p.217). Cowie and Mackin (1975, p. viii) also stress
the multi-word nature and semantic opacity of the idiom: an idiom, they write, “ .. is a
combination of two or more words which function as a unit of meaning.” Unlike
many others, however, Cowie and Mackin (1975) and Cowie (1983) are inclined to “..
describe idiomaticity as a feature cutting across all fixed expressions rather than have
idioms as a separate category included within and subsumed by an overall framework
of fixed expressions.” (quoted in Carter, 2000, p.77)

Mona Baker (1992) on the other hand, studies idioms and fixed expressions under the
same heading as both types of multi-word units represent “frozen patterns of language
which allow little or no variation in form, and in the case of idioms, often carry
meanings which cannot be deduced from their individual components”. The speaker
or writer, she adds, “cannot normally do any of the following with an idiom:

1- change the order of the words in it;

2- delete a word from it;
3- add a word to it;
4- replace a word with another;
5- change its grammatical structure.”


A comparable set of characteristics to describe the idiom is given by Carter (2000); to

him, idioms are “(1) non-substitutable or fixed collocations, (2) usually more than
single word units, (3) semantically opaque.” (p.66) Noting that semantic opaqueness
(or non-compositionality) and fixedness of form do not apply to idioms across the
board, Carter adds, “But the different degrees of possible fixity or “frozenness”, both
syntactic and semantic, should be noted.” (p.66) Cruse (1986) explains, in a partial
manner, this flexibility by distinguishing between “true idioms” (e.g. under the
weather) which do not allow substitution, modification or transformations and “dead
metaphors” which display a certain degree of flexibility (e.g. sugar the pill). (page 42)

As we shall note later, this lack of rigidity in sense as well as permissible variations in
the grammatical form and lexical make-up of the idiom are crucial to the translator;
idioms that are metaphorical in origin seem to be easier to grasp and interpret than
those which are semantically opaque or those whose metaphorical sense has been lost
in the mists of time (kick the bucket, hoist by his own petard). Metaphor-based idioms
in English may also coincide with metaphorical idioms in Arabic especially in cases
where the central word in the metaphor has a similar metaphorical potential in both

languages. This, when applicable, leads to the creation of equivalence that facilitates
the task of the translator. On the other hand, changes in the syntactic pattern of the
idiom (for example using parts thereof (the last straw, carry a big stick),
modifications (take something with a bucket of salt, a mixture of carrots and sticks) or
nominalization like teeth-gnashing (ascribe economic ills) to pocket-lining by
politicians will produce new or different lexical units that are not available in the
dictionary, thus making decoding more problematic for the translator. (For other
definitions of “idiom”, see Cooper (1999) and Irujo (1986)

In this paper, we shall consider the following categories as well as any versions that
may involve syntactic and/or lexical variations and any syntactic modifications
thereof as idioms:

a) Binomials and certain collocations that are syntactically fixed and semantically
opaque: red herring, spick and span, wild card, the acid test, red tape, white elephant,
a bag of nerves, be all the rage, a balancing act, a tug of war, black hole;
b) Lexical units that act as single semantic units, i.e. they are semantically opaque:
rain cats and dogs, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag;
c) We will also follow Cooper (1999) in classifying as idioms all dead and frozen
metaphors that have gained currency amongst the speakers of English and acquired a
conventionalized meaning: light at the end of the tunnel, skin and bones, a shot
between the bows, sail close to the wind and play with fire. We also recognize the
fact that certain idioms which originated as metaphors were, at some point in the past,
semi-transparent as they were interpreted as metaphors. Over the centuries, their
metaphorical origin was lost, making them semantically opaque: spill the beans, let
the cat out of the bag and an axe to grind are a case in point.

We shall exclude from our definition transparent collocations (heavy smoker, stark
naked, stir his memory) , phrasal verbs (verb-particle combinations: take after, get on
with), multi-word units with pragmatic functions and literal senses (bless you, nice
talking to you), similes (as easy as pie, as tall as a giant) and proverbs (When in
Rome do as the Romans do).

2. Strategies for translating idioms

The initial task the translator undertakes when analyzing a text is to recognize that a
certain group of lexical items constitutes an idiom and then interpret it accordingly.
(Baker, 1992: 65) Such recognition is essential since it would redirect the translation
into the TL towards the non-literal sense of the idiom. If the translator fails in this
initial task, the resultant rendition would represent a literal and, in the great majority
of cases, an erroneous, translation. Once the multi-word unit is recognized as an
idiom, the translator can opt for any of several strategies that will vary, depending on
the closeness of the two languages, the interaction between them, the translator’s
experience, the adequacy of dictionaries and the nature of the idiom in question.

1- Translating an idiom by an identical idiom in the target language

If English idioms, or the idioms of any other language for that matter, are examined
carefully, a close link between the idioms and the culture in which they are found will
become immediately and abundantly clear. This author has always wondered where

the idiom the straw that broke the camel’s back came from until one source revealed
that it was a quotation form Dickens in the nineteenth century. The British, who at
one point had the greatest navy in the world, derived a fairly large number of their
idioms from this source: give him a wide berth, sail close to the wind, a shot between
the bows, son of a gun, take the wind out of his sails, from stem to stern. The
confusing idiom between the devil and the deep blue sea, which dates back to the
seventeenth century, is also naval in origin; the “devil”, a kind of plank attached to the
side of the boat, was used by sailors when repair work had to be carried out. The
danger of drowning when the sea got rough was always lurking as the sailor was
hanging perilously between the devil and the deep blue sea. (Now it makes sense!).
Hunting, the army, sports, gambling, card games and many other spheres of life also
contributed to the creation of British idioms. American idioms are no less
representative of the culture of that nation either. The famous Gold Rush in 1848 and
1849, for example, gave us the idiom strike it lucky as did frontier life (an axe to
grind, this neck of the woods). But for Americans, it was sports, in particular baseball,
that have contributed to the enrichment of idioms in a significant manner: be way off
base, play ball, make a ballpark estimate, throw him a curve ball, touch base with,
first/ second/ third base, keep pitching, major league, out in left field, have something
on the ball, a fast ball, etc.

But in spite of this close link between the idioms and their respective cultures,
similarities do sometimes exist across languages. Occasionally, one might encounter
an idiom that is a replica of the English idiom. Spanish and English have the idiom
skate on thin ice. Arabic, Hebrew and English have I am all ears (Hebrew kuli ozen
and Arabic ‫( كلي آذان‬I am all ears)). German and English have he's getting on my
nerves (er geht mir auf die Nerven) and she's got a screw loose (bei ihr ist eine
schraube los). Therefore, and whenever possible, the seasoned translator will give
priority in idiom translation to those that are identical in TL. The effect of this
strategy, when applicable, is to preserve the impact of the English idiom since the
translation retains not only the lexical constituency, the semantic content and the
brevity of the SL idiom but also the effect it may have on the text receiver. “Idioms”,
says the introduction to Longam Dictionary of Idioms, “add color to the language,
help us to emphasize meaning and to make our observations, judgments and
explanations lively and interesting. They are also very useful tools for communicating
a great deal of meaning in just a few words.” (1998: vii). Such a strategy, though, is
not very viable in Arabic due to the cultural differences and the divergent historical
affiliations of the two languages. The number of English and Arabic idioms that
demonstrate full correspondence is very limited:

i) In the twinkling of an eye ‫( في لمح البصر‬lit. in the twinkling if an eye)

ii) A stone’s throw ‫( على مرمى حجر‬lit. at a stone’s throw)
iii) Give him a free hand ‫( أطلق يده‬lit. give him a free hand)

2- In many cases, the lexical constituency of an idiom in SL may differ from its
counterpart in TL though the semantic content of the idiom may be identical across
the two languages: English when pigs fly has French and Arabic equivalents: French:
when chicken have teeth and Arabic ‫( حتى يدخل الجمل في سم الخياط‬lit. until the camel
passes through the eye of the needle). The English idiom he who pays the piper calls

the tune is semantically equivalent to the German idiom he whose bread I eat is
whose song I sing. When fed up with someone, the English would tell him to go jump
in the lake, whereas in Hebrew, the same person would go whistle in the ocean and in
Arabic he would be ordered to ‫( اشرب البحر‬drink the sea). Baker cites the English
idiom carry coals to Newcastle which is culturally specific; noone would understand
the significance of the idiom without realizing that the residents of Newcastle are,
supposedly, the last on earth to need coal since they, apparently, produce it in vast
quantities. This very idiom has parallel idioms in German (Eulen nach Athen tragen:
carry owls to Athens) and French (porter de l’eau a la riviere: carry water to the
river). (p. 69) In fact, Arabic has two idioms which express the same sense: one
colloquial ‫( راح يبيع المية في حارة السقايين‬carry water to the quarters of water-carriers)
and another idiom which dates back to earlier times but this author still finds
appealing: ‫( كناقل التمر الى هجر‬carry dates to Hajar ( a city that is famed for its dates)),
with dates to Hajar being like coals to Newcastle.

In cases of such partial correspondence, an English idiom can be translated by

substitution, i.e. finding an idiom in the TL which is semantically equivalent to the
English idiom (but different in lexical form as well as cultural dimensions) and
creates the same impact on the receiver of the translated text:

i) Without batting an eye ‫( دون أن يطرف له جفن‬lit. without batting an eyelid)

ii) Leave no stone unturned ‫( لم يترك بابا اال وطرقه‬lit. knock on every door)
iii) Miss the mark ‫( طاش سهمه‬lit. his arrow missed)
iv) Dig his own grave ‫( سعى الى حتفه بظلفه‬lit. seek his death by walking to it
v) Rear its (ugly) head ‫( أط ّل بخطمه‬lit. its nose appears)
vi) Between the devil and the deep blue sea ,‫ بين شقي الرحى‬,‫بين المطرقة والسندان‬
‫( كالمستجير من الرمضاء بالنار‬lit. and respectively: between the hammer and
the anvil; between the two blocks of the grinding stone; like someone who
seeks fire to avoid scorching heat)
vii) Give him a free rein ‫( أطلق له الحبل على الغارب‬lit. to put the rope of the camel
on the top of its hump)
viii) Up to his eyes ‫( غارق حتى أذنيه‬lit. up to his ears)
ix) Warm the heart ‫( اثلج الصدر‬lit. cool the bosom)

3- Paraphrasing; i.e. giving the meaning of the idiom in the target language. In this
strategy, the meaning would not be an exact equivalent, an idiomatic-semantic
equivalent or any identifiable unit of any sort. Furthermore, the impact of the idiom
will be totally sacrificed, and any cultural significance associated with it will be lost
in the target text. Whenever the two cultures and the language pair in question are
very different, paraphrasing tends to be the safest and the most commonly used
strategy. In fact, the present author’s forthcoming Beyond the Word II: Dictionary of
English Multi-word Units (Arabic-English) is replete with examples where the only
strategy for the translation of English idioms into Arabic was paraphrasing:

i) Keep his finger on the pulse ‫( راقب (الوضع) بدقّة‬lit. watch the situation
ii) In the hole ‫( مثقل بالديون‬lit. be burdened with debts)
iii) With flying colors ‫بتفوق‬
ّ (lit. in an excellent manner)
iv) Mend fences with ‫( سوى الخالفات مع‬lit. settle differences with)
v) Play ball ‫( نفذ أو أطاع التعليمات‬lit. carry out or obey instructions)
vi) Jump on the bandwagon ‫( انضم الى الفريق الرابح‬lit. join the winning team)

4- The translator may provide a literal translation of the lexical constituents of the
idiom. Such a strategy would be adopted if the metaphorical potentials are similar, if
the literal version is acceptable in the target language, if the translator is incompetent
or dictionaries fail him or, finally, if the idiom has been lexically modified so that it
becomes difficult to find its meaning in the dictionary. Due to the prevalence of this
strategy and its immediate relevance to this paper, we shall return to it in more detail

5- Of considerably less significance are the strategies of omission, compensation and

writing footnotes. We shall not discuss these here any further as they have been dealt
with, fairly extensively, in the literature. (See also Baker 1992 for a further discussion
of idiom translation strategies).

4. The Survey

To examine strategies employed by Arab translators when rendering English idioms

into Arabic, the author monitored the Arabic version of Newsweek, a weekly
publication of the Kuwait-based Dar Al-Watan. The collection consisted of two
hundred and fifty three random idioms that were culled from several issues of the
magazine since its publication. No attempt was made to single out any special
categories of idioms or any particular text type or sub-type in the publication.
According to information the author gathered from the publishers, the English text of
the newspaper is translated by a team of twelve experienced Arab translators all of
whom hold university degrees. This particular publication was selected since it
represents one of the very few parallel corpora which the researcher can access for
purposes of contrastive studies and analysis of the process of translation. The English
idioms were recorded along with their Arabic translations. Once collected, the idioms
were classified into six major categories, primarily in accordance with the strategy
employed in their translation:

a) Idioms that were translated literally from English into Arabic but are not
commonly used in Arabic (literal translations);
b) Idioms that were translated literally into Arabic but these literal translations
have actually established themselves as part of the Arabic lexis (borrowing);
c) Idioms that were translated into Arabic by semantically equivalent idioms
d) Idioms whose meanings were paraphrased into Arabic (paraphrasing);
e) Idioms which were dropped from the text;

f) Idioms which were translated erroneously (wrong translations).

(Other strategies given in 3-5 above were of no special significance in the survey, so
they were ignored).

5. Discussion of Results

Viewed in terms of the classification given in 4- above, the idiom translations

surveyed in the study were distributed as follows:

i) Literal translations: forty-two idioms (around 17%);

ii) Borrowings: fifty-seven idioms (around 23%);
iii) Substitution: thirty-two idioms (around 13%);
iv) Paraphrasing: one hundred and five idioms (round 42%);
v) Idioms dropped in the translated text: two (less than 1%);
vi) Idioms translated incorrectly: fifteen idioms (less than 6%).

A cursory glance at the results reveals the following trends:

A) Statistically, the figures indicate that the most common strategies employed by
Arab translators are, in a descending order of importance, paraphrasing, borrowing,
literal translation and substitution. The fact that a fairly high percentage of the idioms
are translated into Arabic through paraphrasing means two things: firstly, that the
idiomatic systems of the two languages are very different. This is primarily due to the
different genealogies of the two languages. Secondly, when this particular strategy is
employed, the unique nature of the idiom (i.e. its cultural significance and brevity) is
lost in the target text; what we end up with is a lengthy, diluted but accurate rendition
that signifies little beyond the meaning of the idiom in question. In some cases, the
translator had to go to a great length to ensure that the meaning is accurate; the two-
word English idiom white elephant, for instance, was translated by an eight-word
paraphrase in Arabic: ‫( مشروع يحتاج الكثير من العناية مقابل مردود ضئيل‬lit. a project that
needs a great deal of care but on which return is very low).

B) The survey shows an interesting cross-linguistic trend: about twenty-three per cent
of the English idioms were translated by idioms that have been borrowed and have
established themselves as idioms in Arabic. This fairly high percentage is indicative
of the far-reaching influence English has on the Arabic language and how central
translation can be in enriching (and modifying) Arabic. This, combined with the
extensive lexical borrowing and syntactic changes Arabic has been undergoing over
the past few decades due to the influence of journalistic translation, are changing the
Arabic language slowly but consistently. The extent of such change, however, needs
to be verified and determined on the basis of historical evidence and parallel corpora,
both of which are currently lacking in Arabic..

C) The number of idioms translated literally with no established borrowed equivalents

is also remarkably high compared to the total number of idioms surveyed in the study:
forty-two out of two hundred and fifty-three (that is around 17%). In this context, we
must not lose sight of the elementary fact that idioms have a non-literal sense in their
own language and will be understood correctly only if such a method of interpretation
is followed. It goes without saying that a literal translation would lead to the same

result in the TL. Conversely, however, literal translations at the idiomatic level may
simply mean that translations which are at present unacceptable to Arab informants
could, in time, end up as legitimate lexical chunks in Arabic

Due to the important role literal translation continues to play not only as a strategy but
also as a source of enrichment of the Arabic language as well as a constant source of
weak or at best awkward translations, we shall devote the last section of this study to
further analyze and understand this phenomenon.

6- Literal Translation

The results of the survey reveal that literal translation forms a fairly significant
strategy in the translation of English idioms into Arabic: combined together, borrowed
translations and literal translations form approximately forty per cent of the entire
number of idioms in the survey. Moreover, an examination of literal translations in
general confirms that the situation is indeed far more complex than what might have
been suggested so far in this paper.

To start with, literal translation, when utilized, may result in one of three things:

a- It may yield a translation whose acceptance would vary depending on a variety

of factors, including the metaphorical potential of the idiom in question and
cross-linguistic similarities. For example, my informants, who were
professorial staff in the Arabic Department, managed to give an acceptable,
yet labored, interpretation to the following Arabic equivalents from the

i- The government had cash to burn ‫توفر لها من المال ما يمكن لها أن تحرقه‬
ii- Germany carried the torch (for a unified Europe) ‫حمل المشعل‬
iii- (The Iraqis) would love to bag a trophy ( ‫يطمحون الى الحصول على )العراقيون‬
‫صيد ثمين‬

Other translations given to the informants were rejected off-hand as “senseless”

and were “felt” to be literal (and therefore erroneous) translations of idioms in

iv) USA is biting g more than it can chew ‫الواليات المتحدة قادرة على قضم أكثر مما‬
‫تستطيع مضغه‬
v) We have been unable to chew what is in our mouths for ten years ‫غير قادرين‬
‫على مضغ ما في أفواهنا‬
vi) USA can walk and chew gum at the same time ‫الواليات المتحدة قادرة على "المشي‬
‫"ومضغ العلكة في الوقت نفسه‬

Yet, the translations of a third group in the survey were understood to mean
“literally” what they say, an interpretation which renders the sense totally
different from that intended by the idiom user:

vii) (Nokia suspected Motorolla) to be in the same boat ‫ ارتابوا في‬:‫الترجمة الحرفية‬
‫امكانية كون موتوروال في نفس القارب‬
‫ ارتابوا في كون موتوروال تواجه نفس المشكلة‬:‫المعنى الصحيح‬
vii) Nokia returned fire from New York ‫ ردت نوكيا على‬:‫الترجمة الحرفية‬
‫اطالق النار من نيويورك‬
)‫ردت نوكيا (على التهم الموجهة اليها‬
ّ :‫المعنى الصحيح‬
viii) lines in the sand ‫ خطوط في الرمال‬:‫الترجمة الحرفية‬
( ‫ خطوط ال يمكن تجاوزها أو خطوط حمراء‬:‫)المعنى الصحيح‬

ix) (The Queen Mother talking about the German bombing of one her
palaces in WW2) It made it easier for me to look East End in the face ‫الترجمة‬
‫ جعل النظر مباشرة الى ايست اند اكثر سهولة‬:‫الحرفية‬
‫ جعلني ال أخجل من مواجهة وست إند‬:‫المعنى الصحيح‬

b- The translation given may be short-lived; it might be used by a fairly small

number of people in a limited range of styles only to be consigned to oblivion
at a later stage. Translations demonstrating this category are extremely rare to
spot and include a black horse ‫من يرتدون البدالت الزرقاء‬, ‫ الحصان األسود‬blue-
collar workers and a lame duck ‫ البطة العرجاء‬.

c- It may generate a translation that would, sooner or later, find its way into the
multi-word system of the lexis of the target language and become part and
parcel thereof. English idioms that have gained currency in Arabic include the
following examples all of which are taken from the survey:

i) Fat cats ‫القطط السمان‬

ii) (Her crusade) has struck a chord among ‫ضربت على وتر حساس‬
iii) New blood ‫دم جديد‬
iv) Make way for ‫افسح الطريق ل‬
v) A banana republic ‫جمهورية موز‬
vi) Behind the scenes ‫خلف الستار‬
vii) Not mean to slam the UN door ‫لم يقصد أن يغلق باب األمم المتحدة‬
viii) Deal a blow to the system ‫وجه ضربة للنظام‬
ix) Time bomb ‫قنبلة موقوتة‬
x) Cast a cloud ‫القت بظاللها‬

The analysis of the examples cited in the survey as literal translations also reveals
three interesting points:

a) Though a certain idiom may be borrowed in its entirety into Arabic, it is evident
that it is only this ‘whole” unit that seems to have been assimilated into the language.
Any literal translation of a version of the idiom that has been lexically or syntactically
modified remains unacceptable. This is illustrated by the English idiom stick and
carrot policy which has been translated into Arabic by ‫ سياسة العصا والجزرة‬and which
appeared in the survey in the following modified forms:

i) The Bush administration wants to use sticks, its allies want to use carrots ‫ادارة‬
‫بوش تريد ان تستخدم العصا فيما يريد الحلفاء استخدام الجزرة‬
ii) Use a mixture of sticks and carrots ‫استخدام مزيج من العصي والجزر‬
iii) She carries a big stick ‫تحمل بيدها عصا كبيرة‬

b) The survival of some translated idioms and the disappearance of others does not
seem to follow any logical pattern or be related to cultural specificity. Consider the
following examples found in the survey:

i) Two sides of the same coin ‫وجهان لعملة واحدة‬

ii) Hold the trump card ‫يملك الورقة الرابحة‬
iii) The ball is in the European court ‫اصبحت الكرة في المعسكر االوروبي‬
iv) Losing face ‫فقدان ماء الوجه‬
iv) Brush up the country’s image ‫تلميع صورة البالد‬
vi) Bad bet ‫رهان خاسر‬
vii) A leap in the dark ‫قفزة في الظالم‬

If we go beyond the idioms cited in the survey, we shall find that English abounds in
naval metaphors which have turned into idioms as we indicated earlier. Yet none of
these has managed to find its way into Arabic. Baseball idioms have also met a
similar fate with one notable exception: the ball is in his court ‫الكرة في ملعبه‬. By
contrast, some idioms based on gambling (a bad bet ‫رهان خاسر‬, a safe bet ‫رهان مضمون‬
, hold all the cards ‫في يده كل األوراق‬, play his trump card ‫لعب الورقة الرابحة‬, put his cards
on the table ‫ )وضع أوراقه على الطاولة‬have been integrated into Arabic, though Arabs are,
culturally speaking, averse to gambling. In fact, the English idioms that have joined
the ranks of the Arabic lexis are so diverse that it is impossible to assign them to any
specific category or make any sensible generalization about them. (For further
examples of the metaphorical/ idiomatic potential of English and Arabic, see Abu-
Ssaydeh’s Beyond the Word I: A Contrastive Study of English and Arabic
Lexicology, forthcoming)

One likely explanation this author would put forth I regard with this phenomenon is
that once an English idiom is translated literally into Arabic, it may be adopted by
other translators, particularly in journalistic translation. If the same translation is
sustained in the press for a considerable time, it is possible that it will survive. This,

however, remains a conjecture that needs to be substantiated through the examination
of extensive Arabic lexical corpora.

c) In a few cases, the literal translation into Arabic of an English idiom fits snugly in
the metaphorical (and subsequently idiomatic) system of the Arabic language. A case
in point are the words road, picture and horizon which seem to generate
corresponding sets of idioms in both languages. Due to the limited size of the samples
in the survey, the only example found was it is a long road ‫ انها طريق طويل‬. Other
examples from outside the survey include:

i) The end of the road ‫نهاية الطريق‬

ii) The road of life ‫درب الحياة‬
iii) We have a long way to go ‫أمامنا طريق طويل‬
iv) Take a different road ‫سلك طريقا مختلفا‬
v) Limitless horizons ‫افاق ال حدود لها‬
vi) Loom on the horizon ‫الح أو بدا في األفق‬
vii) Wider horizons ‫آفاق أرحب‬
viii) Broaden his horizons ‫وسع آفاقه‬
ix) Put in the picture ‫وضع في الصورة‬
x) Out of the picture ‫خارج الصورة‬
xi) A false picture ‫صورة مزيفة‬
xii) A true picture ‫صورة صادقة أو دقيقة‬
xiii) Form a picture ‫كون صورة‬

Extensive discussions with Arabic language specialists to determine, in an

unambiguous way, the nature of these similarities led to two conclusions; first, the
Arabic expressions cited as idioms in i-xiii above do not form part of Classical Arabic
lexis. Secondly, it is very likely that these translations sound “more natural” in Arabic
than other literal translations simply because the words that form their basis (i.e. ‫طريق‬
road, ‫ أفق‬horizon and ‫ صورة‬picture) do have a metaphorical potential that closely
resembles that of their English counterparts. (It was felt, though, that the idioms with
picture might be actual borrowings). But the validity of any claim made in this
regard, again, remains highly debatable in the absence of searchable Arabic corpus
and historical documentation needed for authentication purposes.

But why do translators resort to literal translation? If we examine the literal

translations given by the Newsweek team (discounting, of course, those which have
entered the Arabic lexis), we will discover that they can be attributed to three reasons.
The most evident of these is, perhaps, the failure of the translator to recognize a
certain lexical chunk as an idiom. This, when it happens, would reflect the linguistic
incompetence of the translator and his evident inability to deal with idioms. In fact,
there seems to be no other logical explanation if the idiom is cited in its entirety in the

source text and its meaning is given in monolingual or bilingual dictionaries as the
case is in the following examples:

i) In these dog days of summer ‫ ايام‬:‫في ايام الصيف الحارة هذه من فترة الكلب (الصحيح‬
)‫الصيف الالهبة‬
ii) lose sight of his mission )‫ تجاهل المهمة‬,‫ تناسى‬:‫زاع بصره عن المهمة (الصحيح‬
iii) (They suspected Motorolla) to be in the same boat ‫ارتابوا في امكانية كون‬
)‫ في نفس المأزق‬:‫موتورورال في نفس القارب (الصحيح‬
iv) (Nokia) returned fire from New York ‫ردت نوكيا على اطالق النار من نيويورك‬
)‫ ردت على التهم الموجهة اليها‬:‫(الصحيح‬
v) the government had cash to burn :‫توفر لها من المال ما يمكن لها أن تحرقه (الصحيح‬
)‫توفرت لها أموال طائلة‬
vi) Germany carried the torch (for a unified Europe) ‫ حملت‬:‫حمل المشعل (الصحيح‬
)‫لواء أو راية‬

On the other hand, the survey demonstrates that failure to interpret the idiom
correctly may occur when the idiom is cited partially or undergoes lexical or
grammatical modifications such as nominalization:

vii) This is an administration with a pretty full plate ‫( هذه ادارة طبقها مليء جدا‬from
have a lot on his plate)
viii) Wanting more of the pie ‫( سعيا لحصة أكبر من الكعكة‬from a piece/ slice of the
ix) nose-thumbing (at international obligations) seemed juvenile ‫بدا وضع‬
‫األصابع في أنف االلتزامات الدولية عمال صبيانيا‬
x) ignore teeth-gnashing in Washington ‫تجاهل صرير األسنان في واشنطن‬
xi) (ascribe economic ills) to pocket-lining by politicians ( ‫يعزون المشكالت‬
‫الى ممارسات حشو الجيوب المتفشية وسط رجال السياسة )االقتصادية‬
xii) I took it all with a bucket of salt ‫أخذت األمر مع سطل من الملح‬
xiii) Use a mixture of sticks and carrots ‫استخدام مزيج من العصي والجزر‬

Even in cases where the idiom is given in the text in its entirety, it may still fail to
appear in general use dictionaries, which in itself seems to be a reason for literal (and
decidedly wrong) translations given by team members in the survey:

xiv) That’s a bridge too far ً‫هذا جسر ضخم جدا‬

xv) Japan’s canary in the coal mine ‫كناري اليابان في منجم الفحم‬
xvi) The government had cash to burn ‫توفر لها من المال ما يمكن لها أن تحرقه‬
xvii) Turn Europe on its ear ‫فتح آذان بريطانيا‬

There might be another reason for literal translation which I would like to add here
tentatively. In a conversation with a colleague who teaches English, this author heard
that colleague describing himself as being “in the same boat” with the others. Nothing
is unusual about this except it was said in Arabic (‫ في نفس القارب‬in the same boat)
though it does not fall within the category of those English idioms whose translation
has been adopted by the language; i.e. the translation was not used in everyday
conversation as part of the lexical repertoire of the speaker. This is not a unique or
isolated case. Those involved in teaching and/or translating English will confirm that
they have had similar experiences. Arab language teachers and translators, it seems,
think of themselves as bilinguals and as such, they may feel that calques are quite
normal in Arabic, even though others may not be familiar with them. Some of the
team members may have felt the same way about the Arabic literal senses they gave
to the English idioms.

6- Conclusion

Idioms are complex and culture-specific multi-word units which are translated
through a variety of strategies, depending on the idiom, the translator’s command of
the language and the relationship between the source language and the target
language. The analysis of the sample idioms taken from the Arabic Newsweek shows
that paraphrasing is statistically the most significant strategy Arab translators employ
when rendering English idioms into Arabic. This entails a substantial loss of the
cultural dimension of the idiom, its impact on the receiver and its appealing brevity.

The survey also confirms that literal translation forms a dominant strategy in the
translation of English idioms. This particular strategy can lead either to the
enrichment of the Arabic language (through borrowing) or to the creation of lexical
strings that are, more often than not, void of meaning or too awkward to interpret.
Hence, translator training should focus on improving the lexical competence of
translators, particularly in areas related to idioms and, by the same token, the more
complex and creative aspects of the English language like multi-word units and

Moreover, Lexicography, whether monolingual or bilingual, should not only list

exhaustively the idioms of the language but also address the issue of variation in
idioms; as we have demonstrated, idioms are not as syntactically or lexically fixed as
they are thought to be. They may vary their lexical constituents, occur partially and a
variety of operations may take place within the idiom at the syntactic level. Cases of
nominalization, for example, can be easily detected and could be listed in the
dictionary. Corpus-based lexical variation and the potential for shortening should also
be taken into account when dictionaries are compiled.

Other aspects in the study also show that the development of Arabic language corpora
is crucial for the documentation and verification of lexical, syntactic and semantic
changes which the Arabic language is undergoing at the present. The creation of
English-Arabic parallel corpora would also be instrumental for the purposes of
contrastive analysis and translational studies.


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