God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

On Idioms and Metaphors

In More than Cool Reason, George Lakoff writes:

Metaphors are so commonplace we often fail to notice them. Take the way we ordinarily talk about death. The euphemism “He passed away” is not an arbitrary one. When someone dies, we don’t say “He drank a glass of milk” or “He had an idea” or “He upholstered his couch.” Instead we say things like “He’s gone,” “He’s left us,” “He’s no longer with us,” “He’s passed on,” “He’s been taken from us,” [etc.]

What Dr. Lakoff doesn’t write is that we also say “He kicked the bucket.”

And here we see the difference between metaphoric language and idiom. Metaphoric language reflects an underlying metaphor. (A metaphor, Lakoff insists, is a pattern of thought, not the words used to express it. In the case of death, our metaphoric approach is of “conceiving of birth, life and death” as “arrival,” “being present here” and “departure.”) By contrast, idioms are conveniently thought of as multi-word words, and they do not reflect any underlying thought process.

Two related properties of idioms make them easy to identify (if you speak the language). First, they cannot be passivized. (“The bucket was kicked by him” doesn’t mean “he died.”) Secondly, parts of idioms can’t be replaced by synonyms. (“He kicked the pail” doesn’t mean “he died.”)

The distinction is really important, because I think that metaphors should be preserved (if possible) in translation, while idioms should be replaced. We see a great, if difficult, test case in Amos 4:6, which I’ll turn to next.

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October 26, 2009 - Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , ,

5 Comments »

  1. It would be most convenient to divide “metaphoric language” and “idioms” into two absolutely distinct categories, the first containing members of which “should be preserved” in translation and the second containing members of which “should be replaced” in translation.

    But “metaphor” itself is both “metaphoric language” and (as transliterated Greek) an “idiom.” Willis Barnstone, in The Poetics of Translation tells his wonderful “Parable of the Greek moving van” in which he discusses the real-life logo on the side panels of transport vehicles around Peloponnisos at the Greek port Piraeus: it’s the word, μεταφορά. Barnstone goes on to say the modern word means, ambiguously, “translation.” And he argues “translation is metaphor.” And then Aristotle, using much older Greek, had much more to say about “metaphora” – which was his metaphoric language for carrying meaning across in poetry and the like. To reduce the English meaning of “metaphor” to Lakoff’s technical definition is to participate in a language act ironically not very technical at all. Lakoff’s definition is very platonic in its assumption of an underlying ideal. But is that all “metaphor” is?

    Below the OED entry related to “kick the bucket.” What it shows is not only the “idiom” as you describe it but also “metaphoric language” with a clear “underlying metaphor”:

    1597 SHAKES. 2 Hen. IV, III. ii. 283 Swifter then hee that gibbets on the Brewers Bucket. Mod. Newspaper. The beam on which a pig is suspended after he has been slaughtered is called in Norfolk, even in the present day, a ‘bucket’. Since he is suspended by his heels, the phrase to ‘kick the bucket’ came to signify to die.

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | October 26, 2009 | Reply

  2. I don’t think you’re entirely correct about the distinction between metaphors and idioms. Last week I went to a seminar on idioms where they were defined as “conventionalised ways of saying things.” The important thing is that all speakers of a dialogue will know an idiom, and it’s unlikely anyone else will. Metaphors on the other hand however, can be invented on the spot and then understood immediately (well if they’re not too complicated that is!)

    Some idioms are metaphorical in nature, like “skate on thin ice”, and apparently “kick the bucket” was at one time, though it isn’t anymore.

    Some idioms are frozen, like “kick the bucket”, but others are flexible, like “make/made/making up your/my/her mind”. And it can even be passivised: “his mind was made up.”

    In translation I think the important criteria is that of death/life. If an idiom is thoroughly dead it is the natural way to say something, and most people won’t even realise they’re using an idiom. But if it’s a living metaphor or idiom, it still actively conjures images, and that should be retained through translation if possible. If a metaphor/idiom is used in wordplay, then that too should be retained, if possible.

    Comment by Dannii | October 28, 2009 | Reply

  3. Dannii: Thanks for your thought-provoking comments.

    I don’t think you’re entirely correct about the distinction between metaphors and idioms. Last week I went to a seminar on idioms where they were defined as “conventionalised ways of saying things.” The important thing is that all speakers of a dialogue will know an idiom, and it’s unlikely anyone else will. Metaphors on the other hand however, can be invented on the spot and then understood immediately (well if they’re not too complicated that is!)

    People use the terms differently. (We even have an expression “idiomatic language,” which need not involve idioms at all.) I agree that idioms are conventionalized, but I think that metaphors can be, too.

    At any rate, I think that Lakoff’s point — and it’s an important one — is that thought patterns are frequently organized in a way that we can conveniently call metaphoric. My point (though it’s not really mine because it’s widely recognized) is that, in addition, there are fixed phrases in most languages that are not metaphoric. We can call these idioms.

    In your interesting case:

    Some idioms are frozen, like “kick the bucket”, but others are flexible, like “make/made/making up your/my/her mind”. And it can even be passivised: “his mind was made up.”

    I think we see a reflection of the metaphor that the mind, like, say, a bed, is something we can arrange. We might note that “make up one’s mind” is part of a larger pattern that includes: “change one’s mind,” “one’s mind is blank,” “one’s mind is in disarray,” etc.

    In translation I think the important criteria is that of death/life. If an idiom is thoroughly dead it is the natural way to say something, and most people won’t even realise they’re using an idiom. But if it’s a living metaphor or idiom, it still actively conjures images, and that should be retained through translation if possible. If a metaphor/idiom is used in wordplay, then that too should be retained, if possible.

    I agree that a dead metaphor (which I’m calling an idiom) should not be translated literally. If Lakoff is right and living metaphors are reflections of societal thought patterns, then translating them is much more complex than just looking at the words.

    I’ll have some more thought about this last aspect in a new post, soon.

    Comment by Joel H. | October 28, 2009 | Reply

  4. Joel and Danii,

    Here’s a related article (“Learning Idioms – With and Without Explanation” by UCLA computer scientist Url Zernlk) which compares “the processes involved in [human] acquisition of idioms, and relate[s] them to existing machine-learning paradigms.” The verb phrase “kick the bucket” is examined. The question of the passive voice is asked:

    “[I]t turns out that the question itself, can a phrase take the passive voice? is wrong. The correct question should be: Is there any discourse structure, in whichthe phrase should appear in the passive?. The phenomenon is interesting in terms of machine learning, since it enables us to examine learning concepts with and without explanation, and to show how the availability of explanation (or a metaphor) makes a difference in applying the acquired concepts.”

    The article may shed some insight into why we humans want to translate different metaphors in different ways. The article makes comparisons between “two phrases (kick the bucket and bury the hatchet) [which] behave differently with respect to the passive voice” and differently in other respects as well.

    http://dli.iiit.ac.in/ijcai/IJCAI-87-VOL1/PDF/025.pdf

    Joel, I like your qualification of “idiom” to mean a “dead metaphor.” (And, in this context of language about “death,” it is aptly punny.)

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | October 28, 2009 | Reply

  5. The contrast between “kick the bucket” and “bury the hatchet” is interesting.

    I want to give it some more thought, but at first glance it seems that “hatchet” is close enough to “fighting” that this is metaphoric. One test would be whether the image can be used productively, and I think the answer is yes: “The dysfunctional government was working at cross-purposes, with one side burying the hatchet and the other side trying to dig it up.”

    On the other hand, “the doctors took away the bucket so the patient wouldn’t be able to kick it,” is — at best — a parody. (It’s supposed to mean “the doctors saved his life.”)

    Going back to the proverbial hatchet (as it were), the metaphor slides seamlessly into other areas that are like warfare: “the two candidates buried the hatchet.” While “kick the bucket” doesn’t expand so easily: (*)”He kicked the bucket of boredom.”

    One reasonable question is if “kick the bucket” is an anomaly or if it represents a phenomenon that needs to be understood in order to translate well, and I’m pretty sure it’s the latter.

    Comment by Joel H. | October 29, 2009 | Reply


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