Beware proverbs and idioms when creating content

Language Faux Pas, Translation & Localization18 December 20145k

Any content creator will know that it's nice to add a personal touch when speaking to target audiences, something that often can be done by using colloquial language (when appropriate, of course) and turns of phrase common to that particular industry or interest.

However, the trouble with colloquialisms and perhaps even slang is that they can be very subjective and changeable depending on where in the world you happen to be. And if you're in a different place or even country than your audience, this could be storing up problems.

Case in point – idioms and proverbs

There's no easier example of this than idioms and proverbs. Every nation has them and they are hugely variable. Idioms are phrases that have meanings of their own, but this meaning cannot necessarily be understood from the composite words – such as the English 'I'm fed up'.

Although native speakers will understand right away that this means a person is frustrated or bored, non-native speakers probably couldn't infer this without assistance.

Meanwhile, proverbs are sayings that tend to offer advice and usually are guessable from their composition – take, 'don't cry over spilt milk', for instance. The issue with proverbs is that those of other countries can be so different to our own that we become distracted by marvelling at them instead of taking on what the speaker was trying to convey.

Idioms of the world – and some proverbs

Hotelclub recently published a fascinating infographic that illustrated some of the world's most interesting idioms. 'Into the mouth of a wolf' is Italian and the equivalent of the English 'break a leg', while 'not my circus, not my monkey' is a Polish way of saying 'not my problem'.

Another interesting one is the Japanese 'to have a wide face', which means' to have many friends' – perhaps it is especially easy to see how this could cause offence outside Japan!

Meanwhile, in terms of proverbs, Germans might say what translates in English as 'don't walk on my cookie' instead of 'don't annoy me' – and the Greek to English translation 'the drowning man grips to his own hair' is potentially unfathomable (it's 'desperate times call for desperate measures', by the way).

Best avoided?

After considering these examples, it might be easy to say that content creators should simply avoid idioms and proverbs at all costs and find other ways to express what they mean in their target audience's tongue.

However, as we mentioned earlier, this would be a shame. Like we said, using similar turns of phrase to our target audience can be an easy way of engaging with them quickly – and that can lead to conversions, click-throughs and potentially even purchases.

What's more, proverbs in particular are an interesting way of learning more about a country and its heritage. If content creators just stop using them because they might not apply in a particular location, could we run the risk of them eventually dying out? This would be a sad loss linguistically and historically.

A better solution

Fortunately, there is another way that allows content creators to use idioms and proverbs confidently without running the risk of confusing their audience and perhaps taking a mis-step (or putting their foot in their mouths, to use an idiomatic example).

Since language is subjective and complex, it's important to use dedicated linguists who have the knowledge and skills necessary for the business creating the content. And if nobody in-house can confidently translate proverbs into something understandable, then making the most of a specialist third-party translation service could well be the best solution.

Organizations such as EQHO have dedicated professionals that work to not only translate, but also localize everything from documents, manuals and websites to videos and other multimedia.

After all, ensuring content is clear to everyone before you publish it is considerably better than shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted*.

*Trying to fix something after the problem has occurred.

Posted by How can I use proverbs and idioms for readers in other languages?


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