(a) An idiom or fixed expression may have no equivalent in the target language. The way a language chooses to express, or not express, various meanings cannot be predicted and only occasionally matches the way another language chooses to express the same meanings. One language may express a given meaning by means of a single word, another may express it by means of a transparent fixed expression, a third may express it by means of an idiom, and so on. It is therefore unrealistic to expect to find equivalent idioms and expressions in the target language as a matter of course.
Like single words, idioms and fixed expressions may be culture-specific. Formulae such as Merry Christmas and say when which relate to specific social or religions occasions provide good examples. Basnett-McGuire (1980:21) explains that the expression say when ,is … directly linked to English social behavioral patterns' and suggests that ,the translator putting the phrase into French or German has to contend with the problem of the non-existence of a similar convention in either TL culture'. Less problematic, but to some extent also culture-specific, are the sort of fixed formulae that are used in formal correspondence, such as Yours faithfully and Yours sincerely in English. These, for instance, have no equivalents in Arabic formal correspondence. Instead, an expression such as watafadaly biqbuul fa'ig al-ihtiraam (literally:, and be kind enough to accept [our]highest respects') is often used, but it bears no direct relationship to Yours faithfulle or Yours sincerely. The same mismatch occurs in relation to French and several other languages.
Idioms and fixed expressions which contain culture - specific items are not necessarily untranslatable. It is not the specific items an expression contain but rather the meaning it conveys and its association with culture - specific context which can make it untranslatable or difficult to translate. For example, the English expression to carry coals to Newcastle, though culture - specific in the sense that it contains a reference to Newcastle coal and uses it as a measure of abundance, is nevertheless closely paralleled in German by Eulennach Athen tragen (,to carry owls to Athens'). Both expressions convey the same meaning, namely: to supply something to someone who already has plenty of it (Geauberg, 1989). In French, the same meaning can be rendered by the expression porter de l'eau a la riviere, to carry water to the river'. Palmer (1976) explains that in Welsh it rains ,old women and sticks' rather than ,cats and dogs', and yet both expressions mean the same thing.
(b) An idiom of fixed expression may have a similar counterpart in the target language, but its context of use may be different; the two expressions may have different connotations, for instance, or they may not be pragmatically transferable. To sing a different tune is an English idiom which means to say or do something that signals a change in opinion because it contradicts what one has said or done before. In Chinese, chang-dui-tairi (,to sing different tunes/to sing a duet') also normally refers to contradictory points of view, but has quite a different usage. It has strong political connotations and can, in certain context, be interpreted as expressing complementary rather then contradictory points of view.
To go to the dogs (,to lose one's good qualities') has a similar counterpart in German, but whereas the English idiom can be used in connection with a person or a place, its German counterpart can only be used in connection with a person and often means to die or perish. Fernando and Flauell (1981) compare to skate on thin ice (,to act unsurely or count danger voluntarily') with a similar Serbian expression: navuci nekoda na tanak led (,to pull someone onto the thin ice'). The Serbian idiom differs from the English one in that is forcing someone into a dangerous position. Though similar in meaning, the contexts in which the two idioms can be used are obviously different.
(c) An idiom may be used in the source text in both its literal and idiomatic senses at the same time. Unless the target-language idiom corresponds to the source-language idiom both in form and in meaning, the play on idiom cannot be successfully reproduced in the target text. The following extract is from a passage which constituted part of the British Translators' Guild Intermediate Examinations for all languages (1986):
"In creating Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy L Sayers demonstrated all the advantages of the amateur private eye. As a wealthy dilettante he was able to pursue the clues without the boring necessity of earning a living. His title as the younger son of a duke pandered to reader snobbery and to the obsessive fascination of some readers with the lifestyle of the aristocracy, or with what they imagined that lifestyle to be. He had sufficient influence to be able to poke his nose into the private affairs of others where less aristocratic noses might have been speedily bloodied".
The above play on idiom can only be reproduced in language such as French or German which happen to have an identical idiom or at least an idiom which refers to interfering in other people's affairs and which has the equivalent of nose in it.
Another example comes from Arab Political Humour by Rishtainy (1985). Although this book was originally written in English, the writer quotes Tokes and anecdotes of Arab origin, so that English is in fact the target language here. The following Toke emerged after the defeat of the Arab forces in 1967, which resulted in the annexation of Arab territory by Israel:
"Egypt's Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Amin, was horrified to see President hasser ordering a tattoo artist to print on his right arm the names of all the Territories seized by Israel like Sinai, Gaza, Sharm al-Shaykh, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights.
"Why are you doing