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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