September 01, 2015

Say What?

Say What?

Every once in a while someone asks me how to translate a particular phrase, and my answer is not that it can’t be translated or that it is hard to translate, but that there’s no point in translating it: We just don’t say it that way.

Languages have standard phrases or clichés that are used in particular circumstances, and translating them literally, or even loosely, often just won’t make sense in another language, which has its own, different clichés.

Take, for example, what you say when you hear about someone’s death. English speakers automatically exclaim, “I’m sorry!” Bad movie translations have the horrified person gasping, “О! Извините!” (Oh! Excuse me!) — as if the person were apologizing for murder. In Russian, the standard phrase is usually an expression of horror: “Какое горе!” (What a tragedy!) “Как жаль!” (How sad!) “Какой ужас!” (How awful!)

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