One of the greatest challenges for technical writers is avoiding idioms and slang that you are accustomed to using on a regular basis. When writing content for translation into other languages, those common phrases and sayings end up making a unique challenge for translators, taking longer to research and translate and costing you more.
What is an Idiom?
According to the American Heritage Concise Dictionary by the Houghton Mifflin Company, an idiom is an expression having a meaning that cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements.
While it is easy to feel that a particular idiom or saying makes it easier to get your point across, those same phrases and idioms are actually confusing for translators.
Because their meaning is not inherent in the words they are composed of, idioms are one of the most difficult items to master in any language and should be avoided as much as possible in writing for translation.
What is Slang?
Slang, on the other hand, consists of vocabulary that is casual or playful, often short-lived expressions used especially for humor, irreverence, or striking effect. Slang is intimately part of one's culture and often originates from movies, television, political events, the news, advertisements, and so on.
Slang should be avoided as much as possible when writing content for translation. Not only does slang almost certainly introduce translation problems, but it also can cause your writing to become quickly obsolete, as slang terms pass into and out of favor.
Problems with Idioms & Slang
- Idioms and slang are usually geared to specific generations and areas. A word or phrase is usurped by a few speakers, then it mushrooms into a common phrase used to mean something that the word or phrase was not usually meant to represent. This is essentially an adaptation that will not stick around for long enough for the idiom or slang to retain the same meaning.
Slang like moxy, rad, heavy, and daddyo are obviously dated words from a specific point in time. When you hear them in a movie, you probably have an idea what they mean, but trying to explain that meaning to a child or someone of a much younger generation means relying on the current idioms and slang to get the definition across.
If you don’t know the current slang, it can be incredibly difficult to translate older slang and idioms even to other native speakers. It takes a lot of additional words to properly define these kinds of words and phrases. For a translator, this becomes an incredibly difficult task (if not impossible).
- Every language has its own idioms and slang. However, they rarely translate well or at all into other languages. This is because language inherently reflects the way native speakers think and use the language.
Consider the UK, the US and Canada, and Australia. All four countries have English as their primary language, but the slang and idioms usually don’t translate well across the oceans.
Australia is particularly noted as taking extreme liberties with the language and morphing it to the unique conditions of the continent. Even between the US and Canada, not all unique uses of the language are known across the borders. In fact, the slang between the East Coast and West Coast of the US tends to be dissimilar.
- Different Ways of Thinking. This is a type of tribal knowledge that does not exist when you try to translate into a completely different language. If you want to translate text from a user manual in English into German (one of the closest relatives to English), there are still too many problems in finding the right words.
The way German speakers use their language is vastly different and much stricter than English. They do have their own idioms and slang that reflects the way they think. Translating German slang into English is incredibly complicated and doesn’t usually work very well because there are rarely slang or idiom equivalence.
Understanding slang and idioms require a certain method of thinking that almost never translates across languages. Translators will try to get the same ideas across, but it takes a lot longer to come up with an equivalent, increasing the time and cost required for document translation and other localization projects. Ultimately, the translation won't have the same meaning and will end up being more confusing or misleading – a risky move, nonetheless. My advice: avoid idioms and slang if you are writing for a global audience. You will save time, money, and a lot of headaches!
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