Holy Catfish, Batman! How to Translate Common Sayings

Sayings and common phrases in pop culture are tricky beasts to tame. This article provides simple and useful instructions on how to add “Language Tamer” to your list of translation skills.

Sometimes, Translations Punch

That’s what reading a badly translated (or, worse, literally translated) common saying feels like. It’s like being slammed in the face with a huge, steel “STOP” sign. It takes the readers out of the illusion of a seamless translation and reveals that the text was originally written in another language. It’s kind of like being told that Santa Claus doesn’t exist: utterly soul crushing.

Translating sayings correctly is the very basis of a successful localization. Get them wrong, and you forfeit authenticity.

Get It Right

That being said, how do you translate common sayings well? Here are some tips:

  • Make sure the message is right, first. If a common saying in language A is used to convey surprise, choose a common saying in language B to convey the same emotion. If you’re not sure what the saying means exactly, do your research and find an equivalent.
  • If you have to tie it in, tie it in. In other words, if the common saying is actually part of a joke or a play on words, translate that as well. I once had to translate: “Holy cow, or I should say, suffering cats.” Luckily, in Italian we have a phrase that’s similar enough to be an equivalent. It’s not always as easy in other languages, unfortunately.

Never Translate Literally

Sayings are part of a culture; if you don’t localize them properly, then you’re cross contaminating cultures. Just like you would in the kitchen or in a lab, it’s best to avoid contaminating your translations. Common sayings are like camouflage: put the right one on and it will blend seamlessly. Choose the wrong one and you’ll be dressed for the Arctic in the middle of Sahara.

About Ernesto Pavan

I’m a native Italian translator based in Italy. I have a degree in journalism, and my specialty areas are journalism translation, advertising translation, and literary translation.