Monday, April 17, 2006

Minor idioms

Last week, while having a discussion with a German guy about government-imposed language reform (a subject I will address at length at a later time) I translated the sentence, "I work to make money" as "Ich arbeite, Geld zu machen." Immediately after the words left my mouth, I realized it didn't sound quite right, and asked him, "It's not machen, is it? It's..."

"Verdienen", he replied, supplying the German word for "to earn." Machen, of course, is "to make" in only the strictest sense, "to create." My rendition would be correct only if I worked at a mint. I'd been caught yet again by a too-literal translation, the ever-present nemesis of the non-native speaker.

All foreign language students are warned not to translate idioms directly, but we're used to thinking only of adages such as "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." There are, however, many "minor" idioms in any language, expressions that are so common we don't even realize they're idioms. As much as I've been drilled in my interpreting classes to focus on the meaning of what is being said, it's incredibly easy to slip up.

In Spanish, "to take advantage" can be translated literally "tomar ventaje" only if one is taking advantage of a person. To take advantage of an opportunity, the verb "aprovecharse" must be used. The meaning of the expression is different in both cases, but you have to think about it. And "make a decision" is "tomar [take] una decisión", not "hacer [make] una decisión".

As a musician, I'm fascinated by the various verbs used in translating "play piano" into other languages. In German it's the same word spielen, "play". In Spanish, it's tocar, literally "touch", which makes a certain amount of sense. And in Chinese, it's tán...but only for piano and plucked stringed instruments, such as guitars. For playing a violin, the correct verb is , which is literally "pull".

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