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Come Again? Translating Idioms for Culturally Diverse Audiences

So, you’re beating around the bush — or you’ve just told someone to break a leg before a big presentation. 

Maybe you’re quitting something cold turkey or just trying to get all of your ducks in a row before you leave work for the day.

English is a vivid, creative, and weird language. It’s full of idioms, or phrases that connote ideas different from their literal meaning, that native language speakers toss around on a daily basis. 

This can be nuanced and delightful. It can also result in a lot of confusion for people who rely on interpreted English — or for people who need to communicate clearly with culturally diverse audiences. 

Communicate With Precision: Your Idiom Translation How-To Guide

Need to figure out how to get an idiomatic idea across? Here are some tips we’ve picked up in our years of conducting multicultural market research.

Find an appropriate cultural version of your chosen idiom. Check to see if the idiom you want to use has an equivalent in your target language. For example, in English, we might say that someone “has a chip on their shoulder”; in Spanish, you might say “tener una espina clavada” (literally, something more akin to having a thorn in one’s side). Going the extra mile to find phrasing familiar to your audience shows respect and can get the same idea across effectively. Use this strategy with caution, though — you may not hit the nail on the head (as it were), especially if you’re working in an unfamiliar language. 

Be prepared to explain your idiom. Provide a clear explanation if you decide to use an idiom common in your vernacular. Writing your idiom out? Clarify what it means parenthetically or in a footnote. Using it in conversation? Follow it up with a quick description. It doesn’t have to be involved, just a simple “That guy has two left feet — or, he seems clumsy today,” for example.

Consider the meaning, and distill for simplicity. Think about when and where you’re hoping to use an illustrative idiom, and clarify the definition down to its most specific possible point. Are you trying to avoid speaking about the elephant in the room? “It seems we might have an awkward subject of conversation today” might not be as fun, but it gets the idea across. If insisting on idiomatic language gets in the way of clear, helpful, and respectful communication, it may be time to streamline your messaging. Keeping it simple may well be a win for everyone involved. 

Ready to Reach Your Audience Successfully with Clear, Engaging Communication Strategies? 

Use cultural equivalents, provide clear explanations, and know when it might be time to avoid idiomatic language — these strategies should help you converse clearly with your target audience. 

If you’re interested in other strategies for communicating with confidence and building strong multicultural relationships, Ebony Marketing Systems is ready to help. We are passionate about conducting multicultural research and creating ways to reach new people with what we learn! Send us a message or give us a call today to learn more about how we can help. 

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