His can only be done, I believe, by a full and frank airing of the issues. I urge you all to speak your minds and not to pull any punches.
(Language andSociety, No14 (1985), p.6)
Provided a translator has access to good reference works and monolingual dictionaries of idioms, or, better still, is able to consult native speakers of the language, opaque idioms which do not make sense for one reason or another can actually be a blessing in disguise. The very fact that she cannot make sense of an expression in a particular context will alert the translator to the presence of an idiom of some sort.
There are two cases in which an idiom can be easily misinterpreted is one is not already familiar with it.
(a) Some idioms are, misleading', they seem transparent because they offer a reasonable literal interpretation and their idiomatic meanings are not necessarily signaled in the surrounding text. A large number of idioms in English, and probably all languages, have both a literal and an idiomatic meaning, for example go out with (,have a romantic or sexual relationship with someone') and take someone for a ride (,deceive or cheat someone in some way'). Such idioms lend themselves easily to manipulation by speakers and writers who will sometimes play on both their literal and idiomatic meanings. In this case, a translator who is not familiar with the idiom in question may easily accept the literal interpretation and miss the play on idiom. The following example illustrates how easy it is to accept a literal interpretation that seems plausible in a given context. The text from which the extract is taken is quoted in the Translators Guild Newsletter (vol. X, January 1985, 1).
This is an extract from a highly idiomatic passage of Citizen Band (CB) Radio special, trucking talk. Rubber duck is the first trucker in a convoy, grandma lane is the slow lane, and pitstop refers to services or a place where one stops for a rest. In the content of trucks, motorways, and stopping at a services station, a literal interpretation of drain the radiator seems highly plausible. It is, however, a special idiom used by CB driuers and means, to urinate; use the toilet'.
(b) An idiom in the source language may have a very close counterpart in the target language which looks similar on the surface but has a totally or partially different meaning. For example, the idiomatic question Has the cat had/got your tongue? Is used in English to urge someone to answer a question or contribute to a conversation, particularly when they failure to do so becomes annoying. A similar expression is used in French with a totally different meaning: donner sa langue au chat (,to give one's tongue to the cat'), meaning to give up, for example when asked a riddle. To pull someone's leg, meaning to tell someone something untrue as a Toke in order to shock them temporarily and amuse them when they find out later that it was a Toke, is identical on the surface to the idiom yishab iylu (,pull his leg') which is used in several Arabic dialects to mean tricking someone into talking about something she would have rather kept secret. In French, a similar expression: Airer la jamble (,pull the leg') means to drag one's steps. Instances of superficially identical or similar idioms which have different meanings in the source and target languages lay easy traps for the unwary translator who is not familiar with the source - language idiom and who may be tempted simply to impose a target-language interpretation on it.
Apart from being alert to the way speakers and writers manipulate certain features of idioms and to the possible confusion which could arise from similarities in form between source and target expressions, a translator must also consider the collocational environment which surrounds any expression whose meaning is not readily accessible. Idiomatic and fixed expressions have individual collocational patterns. They form collocations with other items in the text as single units and enter into lexical sets which are different from those of their individual words. Jake, for instance, the idiom to have cold feet. Cold as a separate item may collocate with words like weather, writer, feel, or country Jeet on its own will perhaps collocate with socks, chilblain, smelly, etc. However having cold feet, in its idiomatic use, has nothing necessarily to do with winter, feet, or chilblains and will therefore generally be used with a different set of collocates.
The ability to distinguish senses by collocation is an invaluable asset to a translator working from a foreign language. It is often subsumed under the general umbrella of, relying on the context to disambiguate meanings, which, among other things, means using our knowledge of collocational patterns to decode the meaning of a word or a stretch of language. Using our knowledge of collocational patterns may not always tell us what an idiom means but it could easily help us in many cases to recognize an idiom, particularly one which has a literal as well as non-literal meaning.
III. The translation of idioms.
Once an idiom or fixed expression has been recognized and interpreted correctly, the next step is to decide how to translate it into the target language. The difficulties involved in translating an idiom are totally different from those involved in interpreting it. Here, the question is not wether a given idiom is transparent, opaque, or misleading.