Idioms Similes and Metaphors in Spanish Translation

Idioms similes and metaphors belong to a category of language forms that many linguists and translators have characterized as ‘untranslatables’. In the first place, these language forms share an indissoluble relation with the culture from which they spring; in the second place, they demonstrate an ambiguous relationship between the literal and the true meanings.

For these reasons, normal translation methods, like word-for-word translation, are usually of no avail, and translators must aim for what is known as ‘dynamic equivalence’. The latter can simply be explained as similarity in effect and impact. Apart from idioms similes and metaphors this category of language forms also include proverbs, word plays and linguistic ‘folklore’.

List of Techniques

Some of the techniques, arranged in decreasing order of significance, which can be applied to metaphors in Spanish translation, are as follows:

  1. Retain the source language metaphor in the target language if the context, the objects of comparison, and the concept illustrated by the comparison permits it.
  2. Change the metaphor into a simile to make the comparison explicit. Locate an object in the target language that symbolizes the concept illustrated by the comparison in the source language. Follow it up by locating a simile or metaphor that uses that object in the target language.
  3. Select a different metaphor altogether in the target language keeping in mind the aim of ‘dynamic equivalence’.
  4. Retain the metaphor, and also attach an explanation for purposes of explication.
  5. Abandon the metaphor or the simile for a translation of its meaning in the target language. Spanish translators should try one solution after another until they find one that achieves the same or equivalent effect in Spanish translation. However, it is important to remember that as one gives up one technique for the next in the above scale, the Spanish translation loses in quality, in effectiveness and elegance. It moves farther and farther from the original.

Can Be Translated Literally

Idioms too cannot be translated literally because their meanings are different from and more than the total sum of the words that form the idiom. The literal translation of the Spanish idiom ‘a ciencia cierta´ would read ‘to science correct´ which is meaningless.

The correct translation would be ‘with complete certainty’. Problems in Spanish translation of English idioms consist of syntactical differences between the two languages. For example, idioms in English are often compound words while idioms in Spanish are nouns combined together with the help of prepositions.

The Spanish translator should use the help of special dictionaries for the Spanish translation of English idioms, like the 2001 Spanish and English idioms (2001 idioms series) by Eugene Savaiano and Lynn W. Winget. Similar help in translating proverbs can be found from dictionaries like Dictionary of Proverbs, Sayings, Maxims & Adages: Spanish/English and English/Spanish by Delfin Carbonell Basset.

In the Spanish translation of proverbs, apart from dynamic equivalence, translators should also aim at capturing the euphony, that is, the sound and the rhythm of the proverb.

Idioms Similes and Metaphors II

Idioms similes and metaphors belong to a category of language forms that many linguists and translators have characterized as ‘untranslatables´. That is firstly because they are so bound by the culture from which they spring that it is difficult to render them in translation by normal translation methods. Secondly, the literal meaning and the true meaning of these words share a rather ambiguous relationship, and do not reflect each other. Apart from idioms similes and metaphors, this category of language forms also includes proverbs, word plays and linguistic ‘folklore´.

Definition and Function

In English, an idiom is an expression that means something other than the literal meaning of its individual words. For example, the idiom ‘bone of contention´ refers to a matter of dispute, and not really to two animals quarrelling over a bone. In Spanish, an idiomatic expression is known as ‘modismo´. For example, ‘a grandes rasgos´, ‘a la Americana´, ‘carne de gallina´, etc. Metaphors and similes are both figures of speech in which two dissimilar objects are compared to one another. In a simile the comparison is made explicit with the use of words such as ‘as´ or ‘like´, for example, ‘as clever as a fox´ or ‘as pretty as a picture´. In a metaphor the comparison is implied, for example, ‘She has a sunny disposition´ or ‘He has a green thumb´.


A method known as ‘equivalence´ has been devised to render idioms similes and metaphors in Spanish translation. Equivalence in Spanish translation refers to the process by which a Spanish translator identifies a similar expression in the target language. The similarity that the translator should aim for is not that of lexis or of syntax, but one of meaning and impact. For example, the English idiom ‘the cat was let out of the bag´ can be said in Spanish as ‘se descubrió el pastel´. The Spanish expression literally means ‘the cake was discovered´, but figuratively it refers to the same idea as the English expression, namely that ‘the secret was revealed´.

Potential Problems

Idioms similes and metaphors in Spanish translation create some peculiar problems of their own. It may sometimes happen that the objects or concepts being compared in the source language do not exist in the target language. For example, the Native Indians of Latin America are unfamiliar with the concept of snow. A successful Spanish translation of the English simile ‘as white as snow´ will demand the use of a target word that fulfils the same notion as that of snow.

In many cases, the clouds or the feathers of a bird were found to supply the equivalent notion. Sometimes it also happens that the objects being compared have different values in different cultures. The ‘ox´ is a symbol of strength in the English-speaking world, and to say that ‘he is an ox´ is a compliment. However, for the Argentine gaucho, the ox represents passivity and stupidity. Once again, the notion of equivalence will come into play, and the translator will have to identify the Argentine symbol for strength. Proverbs popular saying and linguistic folklore in Spanish translation can be similarly rendered by applying the concept of equivalence.

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