I am watching and translating TV shows to practice certain languages.

I was watching a tv show where the main character speaks English but occassionally make mistakes. For example, "That person really drives me up the hall". I believe the proper phrase is, "That proper drives me up the wall."

How do you translate the error without losing the essence of what just happened? The writer obviously did it for another character to react, so it is necessary to translate the error for the scene to make sense.

You could translate it literally. However, if the phrase is an idiom, there may not be a direct translation. So, do you translate the idiom into the language you want and then make a mistake that may not be the same but similar?

  • 3
    I would translate the L1 idiom into an equivalent L2 idiom and then do my best to change a word into a mistakenly rhyming word. That seems like a reasonable approach. I will try to think of an example and post an answer below.
    – AML
    Jun 3, 2020 at 13:41

2 Answers 2


So, do you translate the idiom into the language you want and then make a mistake that may not be the same but similar?


Translation is a creative process, where your priority is retaining the intent of the author. Languages aren't merely simple 1:1 mappings of the same meanings onto different words. Every language has a different history and a different culture that shaped it, attaching varied connotations to words with the same primary meaning, forming own idioms, differing similar words in level of formality.

A direct word-for-word translation will destroy these subtleties, and while it may work for an instruction manual or a cookbook recipe, these subtleties are what sets a difference between a creative literary work and a protocol/report.

Every dictionary will tell you how to translate a word in a literal meaning, but there are no good guide how to transplant all these "extras" between two languages of dissimilar cultural background. It's a work that requires talent, skill and knowledge of both languages. And so, you should recognize the author's intent, what effect, what feeling would given phrasing or quirk evoke, and then create a translation that replicates that effect, by whatever means are best fitting in the target language.

So, in case of intentional errors - try to create an error of similar traits; similar effect on the reader. Maybe humorous, maybe showing ignorance of the speaker, or their poor grasp of the language, or forgetfulness... whatever the author wanted to show through this technique, your translation should do as well.

  • Thank you for the thorough explanation! It kind of makes me wonder how many things I've been missing by trying to translate literally. Jun 3, 2020 at 16:39
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    @JustBlossom Yeah. The interesting part is, if you sense the author's intentions well enough, and have a masterful grasp of the language (or just your language lends itself better to the subject matter than the original) you can make the translation outshine the original.
    – SF.
    Jun 3, 2020 at 19:00

I absolutely agree with SF, but keep in mind whether you want your translation to be adapted to the target language and culture, or if you want to teach your audience about the original language and culture.

For instance, suppose the original is set in the Wild West, USA... and you're translating it into Chinese. Suppose your target audience wants to learn about American history and culture.

In this case, it would be odd to use the Chinese idiom 毛髮不爽 ("uncombed fur") and introduce a mistake. It would be strange for a cowboy in the Wild West to be so cultured in Chinese proverbs, even if he got it wrong! (It would, however, be acceptable for the narrator to use this expression.)

Instead, I'd translate it as something like this:

He makes me feel... makes me feel...

I'm allowing the reader to fill in the blanks himself. If he doesn't know that Americans don't use the expression "uncombed fur," he's welcome to insert that. But if the reader knows a bit more about American culture, he can insert something else in his mind without finding it strange.

Either way, I have communicated the fact that Jim isn't the most eloquent of speakers.

Translation isn't about conveying the original text itself. It's about transcending language and culture so that you can reveal what's beneath the words.

A good translation isn't bound to the original text. Feel free to use your own creativity to express what the original author wanted his readers to feel.

Of course, this depends on what your audience is expecting. A translation published in the Chinese Journal of American Literature (if such a journal exists) will read very different from subtitles posted on YouTube.

Know your audience, and cater to what they expect.

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