You don’t get to be the type of person who lives and breathes translation without developing a love for the interesting nuances that make a language what it is.  And so it’s no surprise that the team at STAR have all sorts of obscure knowledge about how language is used.

We’ve looked at a few of these in the past, how adjectives are trickier than you think, and how idioms are actually traps to catch the unwary, but the one we’re going to look at today is possibly the best yet.

There is a grammatical rule in English that you were never formally taught. Yet you know exactly how it is appliedand when to use it. You can also spot it a mile off when people get it wrong.

Actually there are a few, but it’s probably best if we ignore that for the time being.

This rule is a bit special, because despite us all following it, no-one even knows for certain what it is.

It relates to dropping words, or parts of words, inside other words.

Yes, that’s right, we’re going to look at infixes.

The Context

I have no doubt that you are fully familiar with prefixes. A word, letter, or number placed immediately in front of another in order to change or clarify its meaning.

You can reverse the meaning of a verb by placing “un” in front of it.  You could tie your shoelaces, and then you could untie your shoelaces.

And I’m equally certain that you know all sorts about suffixes and how they are used. A morpheme added to the end of a word in order to form a derivative.

For example if I have a habit of being quick at doing things, I may untie my shoelaces quick“ly”.

So if a prefix comes before a word, and a suffix comes after a word, then I suspect you have figured out that an infix is a word or morpheme that sits within the body of another word.

an infix is a discrete unit of langiage that sits inside a a word

Now I’m not planning on talking about the obscure technical uses of infixes in chemistry, like the addition of “pe” into a word to signify complete hydrogenation – lutidine becoming lupetidine for example. Nor am I going to be looking at highly specific jargon.

Infixes around the world

There are fairly well accepted uses of infixes in lots of languages.  In some Spanish speaking Central American countries “it” is used as a diminutive infix to imply familiarity and affection in a name.  For example, Óscar would become Ósquitar. This probably derives from the Misumalpan language Ulwa spoken across Nicaragua and Honduras which uses infixes regularly.

In Samoan, infixes can be a repeated morpheme used as a unit of stress. So “atamai” meaning “clever” or “smart” becomes “atamamai” meaning “wise”.

In Chamorro, a language used by the indigenous people of the Mariana Islands, infixes are extremely common, and used for a number of purposes.  For example, “tristi” means “sad”, but “trumisti” means “becomes sad”.

However, interesting though this is, it isn’t what I promised you at the beginning.  That was to look at how we use them in English without ever being taught them.

The reason for that, is that in English, infixes are usually expletives.

They are swear words. Or substitute swear words dropped into the middle of other words in order to intensify the meaning.

Are you serious? I hear you ask.


Expletive infixes in English

The most interesting thing about these expletive infixes is not that they exist in the first place, but that despite usually not being exposed to them in language until adulthood, new examples can be formed easily and consistently across native English speakers.

That suggests that there is indeed a linguistic rule that is being followed and that the placement is not arbitrary.

However, there is some debate about what that rule may be.

James McMillan, in his paper “Infixing and Interposing in English” suggests that they are placed at a syllable boundary, usually just before the primary stressed syllable of the word.  Thus absolutely becomes abso-bloody-lutely and not ab-bloody-solutely.

However, this doesn’t quite explain the phenomenon completely.

For example, if we were to follow this rule unbelievable would be unbe-bloody-lievable. Clearly the correct usage here is un-bloody-believeable.

John McCarthy, in his paper “Prosodic structure and expletive infixation”  suggests that what actually matters is the metrical stress of the word, and the infixation occurs at the point where the least restructuring of the word needs to be done to accommodate it.

If we look at the words unbelievable and irresponsible we can see they have the same number of syllables. The have identical stress patterns, and the first syllable of both is a separate morpheme.  However, the infix location is clearly different.  What he proposes is that the first complete rhythmic unit of unbelievable is “un”, but of irresponsible it is “irre”.  So while we would say un-bloody-believable, we would not say ir-bloody-responsible, but irre-bloody-sponsible.

What this actually means is that, if he is correct, as native speakers of the English language, we have an innate understanding of the basic repeating rhythmic units of the language. These are known as prosodic feet and form the basis of poetic metre.

But that is a subject for a whole other article.

When you think about it, adjectives are amazing things.

A word that changes the meaning of another word.

If you read the words “a cat” you immediately create a mental image of a cat, however if we add in an adjective, it can completely change that mental picture.

A stuffed cat.

I’d be willing to put money on the fact that first time round your mind’s eye didn’t picture a stuffed cat, but now it does, and when you go back to the first example, the cat by itself, you still see an example of the taxidermist’s art.

So when adjectives are so powerful, and can so completely change the way we perceive the written words they relate to, it’s probably fair to say that it is important that we get them right.

If we’re looking to translate a phrase from one language to another and we get the adjective even slightly wrong it can have fairly big consequences.

It’s probably not lifechanging for you not to know that my imaginary cat is long dead and stuffed, but it could be if you were given the wrong information about the inbuilt safety systems of your new car.

So now we’re all in agreement about how important adjectives are, let’s look at a few ways people can be caught out.

translating adjectives well matters

Articles as Adjectives

Technically articles are adjectives. “Cat” is less specific than “A cat”, or “The cat”. You’re probably fully aware that different languages have different rules for articles. In English we only have three articles, ‘a’, ‘an’, and ‘the’.

‘A’, and ‘an’ are both derived from the Old English “An” meaning one. A thousand years ago we had “se” (masc.), “seo” (fem.), and “þæt” (neuter), but they were all eventually superseded by “þe” which gave us “the”. However other languages retained a lot of the variation that we in English have lost.

Some languages have two forms of definite article (masculine and feminine), some three (masculine, feminine, and neuter). Sometimes these change according to whether the noun is singular or plural, and sometimes based on whether the noun refers to an animate, or inanimate object.

For example in the Algonkian language of Ojibwe the word “mitig” has several different meanings. When animate the word means tree, but when inanimate it means twig. Similarly in Kurmaji, “dar” used as feminine means tree, but the same word with a masculine article means wood – the sort of mistake a non-native speaker makes all the time.

But there is way more to adjectives than just articles.

Adjective Placement

The way different languages use adjectives can vary massively. Where is the adjective placed in relation to the noun it belongs to? What order are your adjectives written in? These things matter, are often not particularly intuitive to the non-native speaker.

In French, most adjectives are placed directly after the noun they relate to. For example “une robe rouge” translates as “a red dress” despite literally saying “a dress red”. Most French speakers will forgive a mistake like this, but when it comes to commercial translation ‘good enough’ is not actually good enough. It has to be right.

However, we mentioned that not all adjectives are placed after the noun in French. Some are commonly placed before. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the English phrase “A new dress” would translate to “une robe nouvelle”, but you’d be wrong. In the case of that particular adjective, it should be positioned before the noun, and not after it.

In some cases the meaning of the adjective even changes depending on its placement.

Une robe chère” is an expensive dress. But “chère Céline” is not expensive Celine, but dear Celine.

As if that wasn’t confusing enough, there are some French phrases that look very much as if they are simple adjective noun combinations, but actually have specific meanings in English.

Mon petit ami” does not refer to my small friend, but to my boyfriend.

Every language has its own special use cases and subtle nuances that may not be familiar to a non-native speaker.

However, even when translating to and from English we shouldn’t be blasé.

Adjectives in English

Our use of adjectives is not as simple as you might think. While we usually place adjectives before the noun they relate to, that is not always the case. When using linking verbs (commonly the verb ‘to be’) the adjective goes after the noun.

“The red dress” becomes “The dress is red”.

But also when utilising set phrases such as “heir apparent” or “poet laureate”.

Indefinite pronouns are another example of postpositive adjectives. We wouldn’t refer to “strong somebody”, but “somebody strong”.

There are even examples where changing the position of the adjective from before to after the noun actually changes the meaning of the sentence in English.

“Are you a responsible person?” does not have the same meaning as “Are you the person responsible?”

The difference is subtle, but it is clear to a native speaker.

Now let’s take a quick look at adjective order.

Order of Adjectives

You may or may not know that we have set rules in English that we all follow, albeit unknowingly, when it comes to the order of adjectives.

It goes like this.

Opinion, Size, Physical quality, Shape, Age, Colour, Origin, Material, Type, Purpose.

I could say “He drives a strange, old, green car” and it would make perfect sense. But if I were to swap the adjectives around and say “He drives a green, strange, old car” it would sound a little jarring to any native speaker.

“A long, thin, Japanese, cooking knife” makes a lot more sense than “A cooking, thin, Japanese, long knife.” Which, let’s be honest, makes me sound insane.

The only real point here is that every language has many varied, and subtle rules that govern the use of adjectives. And non-native speakers are likely to get at least some wrong from time to time, however well they know the language.

That is why at STAR we always ensure that our team of translators always work into their native languages.

If you’ve got something to translate, why not get in touch and we’ll make sure it’s done properly.

A good translator needs to be knowledgeable and experienced in their profession. But, more than that, the qualities of a good translator include great attention to detail, research skills, and a good emotional and technical understanding of language. Good translators often work independently, so they should have no trouble doing this, and possess a good deal of common sense.

The Key to Good Translation

A qualified and experienced translator is the key to good translation. Without a good translator, there’s no guarantee that your content is conveying the same tone or intent as it originally did. In extreme cases, there is also no guarantee that it even has the same meaning as it did in its original form! And when your business services depend on accurate translations, this isn’t a risk you can take. So knowing what qualities to look for in a good translator is important.

Are qualifications a quality of a good translator?

Do Qualifications Matter?

One of the easiest ways of finding a good translator is to look at what qualifications, programs, or certifications they have. But, qualifications don’t necessarily always tell you everything about a person, including what personal and professional skills and qualities they possess. Additionally, not all countries offer programs to prove your worth as a translator.

For instance, translators in some countries can earn the status of ‘certified translator’ or ‘sworn translator’. Certified translators are often needed to translate identity documents for government bodies. But, unfortunately, unlike these countries, the UK does not have an official system of certified translators. So businesses have to rely on other methods to find out whether an individual is a good translator.

Does Personality Matter?

There is no one type of personality that suits being a good translator. This is both a blessing and a curse. It means that there are lots of people who have the abilities and skills necessary to be a great translator. But, it can be hard to narrow down your search when you have so many options.

The Most Important Qualities of a Good Translator?

A good translator should have good research skills, and the ability to write creatively in their target language. They should also have a good attention to detail. Without a good attention to detail, there’s more room for mistakes in their translations. Tiny changes to content can completely change its meaning, including moving and changing punctuation. It’s less likely that a translator will miss any small details like this if they have good attention to detail.

Good translation isn’t just about accurately interpreting words. It is also about interpreting and conveying the correct tone and intent of your original content.The ability to write creatively will mean that your translator is able to accurately recreate the tone and spirit of your content, especially if this requires slight changes. If your translator has a flair for creativity, they will be able to do this with no problem.

Other Qualities of a Good Translator

Most translators work independently when translating work. So, a good translator will have to be able to easily work and motivate themselves when working alone. Research skills tie into this. When someone works independently, they won’t necessarily be able to rely on others to find information and answers. This also requires a level of initiative. If a translator struggles to motivate themselves when working alone, they may struggle to accurately translate content.

Paired with these qualities, it’s important for good translators to have common sense. If something has been translated but doesn’t make sense, or doesn’t have the same spirit and intention as the original content, it’s important that they pick up on this. It goes hand in hand with attention to detail. But rather than translating something word for word, they must have the common sense to make adjustments for the flow and benefit of the content as a whole.

Is Experience Important?

The more experience translators have, the more opportunities they get to develop these qualities. Experience will also naturally help any translator to develop their understanding of the languages they speak. Plenty of experience in translating services will demonstrate that someone has the theory and the knowledge of the languages necessary for accurate translation. It also means they are likely to be aware that translation is more than just a word for word rendering. They’ll be capable of recreating the spirit, tone, and intention of the original piece as though it was originally written in the target language.

So, although there’s no particular personality that makes a good translator, there are a few key qualities that will help. A good translator needs the ability to research terminology and concepts in depth. But they also need a great attention to detail, and a flair for creativity. The best translators will often have the right qualifications and experience. But they will also be able to work independently, with great attention to detail and emotional intelligence.

In simple terms, translation is the process of rendering written content from one language to another language. But, not every translation will be as good, or as accurate as another. Good translation relies on having a qualified and experienced translator who is capable of achieving the following.

The translated content must be accurate, with the same meaning and intent as the original, with no errors or omissions.

But, it must also replicate the correct tone and spirit as the original content.

The Most Important Aspect of Translation 

Perhaps the most important part of a good translation is to have the same meaning and effect as the original content.

In any language, small changes can completely alter the meaning of content. In a business setting this can be detrimental, especially if you are translating important information or statistics.

So, before anything else, a good translation must have the same meaning as the original content.

Without this, you could unconsciously be saying something completely different once your work has been translated.

Technical accuracies are inevitably linked to the accurate meaning of a text. These are another key part of a good translation.

This applies to even the smallest detail in your content.

Not only do each of the words need to have the correct, accurate meaning, but all of the grammar needs to be correct and in the right places. Missing out small things like this can completely change the meaning of your content.

So, a good translation requires attention to detail as well as a complete and in-depth knowledge of both languages.

Hand in hand, technical accuracies and an accurate meaning will result in a good translation. But, there’s even more that goes into the process.

Tone of Voice

A good translation will capture the same tone and spirit as the original content.

This is especially true in content that is being translated to be published. Tone is just as important as meaning in many ways.

A translation that has the same tone as the original content will ensure that your words have the exact same effect on any of your readers. You don’t want original content to be inspiring and moving but translated content to be dull and unmotivating.

Plus, a translator is almost never the author of the original content. So, a good translation will replicate the tone and voice of the author that is being translated.

This can take a degree of skill. So, you’ll need to invest in a good translator.

The Translator

To achieve a good translation, you need a good translator.

The best translators will be able to do everything we have mentioned here.

Choosing a translator with plenty of experience and qualifications means that you are more likely to get a good translation. Some businesses may consider using just anyone that can speak the target language. But, doing this can result in inaccurate translations. Or worse, ones that are technically accurate but that don’t reflect the original intent and tone of your content.

A professional translator will have the experience and ability to replicate your content exactly as it should be.

In some situations, it could be hard for a translator to get a technically accurate translation whilst keeping the exact same tone and meaning. But, a good translator will know just how to strike the right balance.

Good translation, if all of these factors are achieved, does not seem like a translation at all. In fact, it will seem as if the content was originally written in your target language.

A good translation could be read by a native speaker with no indication to them that the content has been translated. Communication with readers in the target language should feel natural and easy with a good translation.

A good translation doesn't feel like a translation at all

Why you Need Good Translation

Good translation matters. Especially when global interconnectivity is an important part of your business.

As different parts of the world become more interconnected, it’s important that communication is as easy as possible. And the most successful businesses will be the ones that have the best translations.

So, in summary, achieving a good translation requires a number of layers.

It needs to convey the same meaning, tone, and spirit as the original content. This is important both to preserve the mark of the author. It is also important to serve the same purpose as was originally intended.

Your reader, ideally, will not be able to tell that they are reading a translation. A good translation is imperceptible to its audience. And a good translator can guarantee that.

Most people use idioms in their daily conversations without thinking. But these expressions can seem like utter nonsense if you aren’t a native speaker of that language, so translating idioms can be tricky.

A lot of idioms don’t translate easily across languages. And trying to translate them can have some hilarious results.

You usually need to know the meaning behind the idiom before you can truly understand what it means. But this can pose some interesting problems for people who are working in a different language.

What is an idiom?

Idioms are sayings or expressions with a meaning that differs from the literal meaning of the individual words [definition].

For instance, the English idiom ‘speak of the Devil’ means ‘the person we were talking about just showed up’, rather than to literally speak of the Devil.

You can see why this would be confusing for someone who doesn’t know the meaning of the phrase.

This is because you can’t get the meaning of an idiom from the expression alone – you need to know the context surrounding it.

Generally idioms offer advice or reflections that can be applied to the situations they’re used in. So, not only are they interesting linguistically, but they offer some great insights to the culture and societies in which they are used.

English idioms

These expressions can be applied to pretty much every area of life. But the best way to see that is to look at some of the best idioms from our own language.

Here are some common English idioms and their real meanings.

  • ‘Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it’ – we will deal with that problem when it happens
  • ‘The ball is in your court’ – it’s up to you to decide
  • ‘To bite off more than you can chew’ – to take on more than you can handle
  • ‘Hit the sack/hay’ – to go to bed or to sleep
  • ‘The cat’s out of the bag’ – to reveal or find out a secret.

It’s pretty likely you’ve heard someone use these idioms if you’re a native English speaker. But, when you stop to take the phrases literally, it’s easy to see why non-natives could get confused.

Are idioms universal?

Just because people speak different languages doesn’t mean their experiences are entirely unique.

Idioms can describe universal experiences. So, are there any universal idioms that are used in every language?

The answer is yes and no.

Some idioms can be applied globally, and have versions of one another. But they don’t use the exact same words.

Others will only make sense in their own culture, and will sound like complete nonsense to any non-native.

Let’s take a look at a few of those ‘universal’ idioms that can be applied to the same situations.

Idioms in different languages

One universal situation that is described by idioms in most languages is a job that is easily done.

In English, you might hear someone say “that’s child’s play”, “that’s a piece of cake”, or “as easy as ABC”. So, even within one language there are multiple idioms to describe this situation.

A French version of this idiom is: ‘c’est un jeu d’enfant’. Literally, this means ‘it is a child’s game’, so is really similar to the first English idiom above.

In Chinese, we have 举手之劳 or jŭs hŏu zhī láo. This can be translated to mean ‘the effort of raising a hand’.

The Germans also use hands in their idiom – ‘das schaffe ich mit links’, meaning ‘I can do that with my left hand’.

The words are not that important when translating idioms such as these. It is the meaning that matters. One can often be substituted with another.

Let’s take another example

Another situation that has idioms in a lot of different languages is bad weather.

In English, we might say ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ if we see a storm outside. This means it’s horrible weather, or raining heavily.

French has a similar saying: ‘il fait un temps de chien’. This roughly translates to ‘it’s dog weather’, but means the same as the English idiom above – the weather is foul. However the French are as likely to say ‘il pleut de cordes’, literally, it’s raining ropes.

The Welsh also have an idiom for this situation, but they move away from dogs and cats. ‘Bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn’ translates to mean ‘raining old ladies and walking sticks’ and is commonly used to describe heavy rain.

Even though these idioms are all different, it’s easy to understand the situation they refer to. Most countries have their own versions of similar idioms.

But, translating idioms is harder if you don’t know the surrounding context. Let’s take a closer look at some idioms that don’t translate across linguistic borders quite as easily.

Translating Idioms - Raining Ropes?

French idioms

One great French idiom is perfect for describing anger or losing your temper is ‘avoir la moutarde qui monte au nez’. This literally translates to ‘to have mustard up your nose’. It’s easy to see how this could be confusing to a non-native.

Another pretty strange sounding French idiom is: ‘avoir un poil dans la main’. This literally means ‘to have a hair in one’s hand’, but is used to mean someone is being lazy.

A more romantic choice is ‘un coup de foudre’. This literally translates to mean ‘a lightning bolt’, but is actually used to mean love at first sight.

German idioms

Another language that has some great idioms to consider is German. ‘Eine Extrawurst bekommen’ roughly translates to mean ‘get an extra sausage’. But this idiom means that someone is asking for or getting special treatment.

A fun German idiom is: ‘da steppt der Bär’, which translates to ‘the bear dances there’. This is used if you want to say a party will be great fun.

And ‘Tomaten auf den Augen haben’, literally means to have tomatoes on your eyes. But this is used to describe someone who is being blind to their surroundings.

Chinese idioms

China is well known for its idioms and wise sayings. They are known as ‘chengyu’ in Mandarin. Translating idioms, or chengyu into other languages is particularly tricky.

‘马马虎虎’ (mǎ mǎ hū hū) literally translates to ‘horse horse tiger tiger’. But this phrase as a whole is used to describe something that is average, or in English “run of the mill”.

Another great Chinese idiom is ‘骑虎难下’ (qí hŭ nán xià) which translates to mean ‘riding a tiger is difficult’. This idiom is used to describe hard situations that cannot be stopped halfway through.

‘民以食为天’ (mín yǐ shí wéi tiān) is another Chinese idiom that can be used in many situations. This literally means ‘people regard food as heaven’, and is used to emphasize the importance of food.

Welsh Idioms

Although Wales is just next door to England, they still have plenty of idioms that don’t translate well to non-natives.

For instance, ‘Rhoi’r ffidil yn y tô’ literally means ‘putting the violin in the roof’, but is an idiom used to describe giving up.

Fel cynffon buwch’ translates to mean ‘like a cow’s tail’. This idiom is used when someone is later than everyone else.

And ‘A’i wynt yn ei ddwrn’ translates to mean ‘with the wind in his fist’. You can use this saying to describe someone who is out of breath.

Russian Idioms

Russian is another great language for fascinating idioms. Let’s start with ‘Остаться с носом’ (astat’sya s nosam). This translates to mean ‘stay/be left with the nose’, but is used to describe someone who was tricked or duped into something.

‘Когда рак на горе свистнет’ (kagda rak na gare svisnit) can be translated to mean ‘when the crawfish on the mountain whistles’. This essentially means something is never going to happen.

Another great one is ‘Дать зуб’ (dat zub) translates to ‘give a tooth’. This idiom means that you are 100% certain about something. You are so sure that you would give your tooth.

Spanish Idioms

Finally, let’s look at some Spanish idioms that sound pretty strange when translated into English.

One great Spanish idiom is ‘Estar en la edad del pavo’, which means ‘being in the turkey age’. This sounds like complete nonsense if you don’t know what it means. But it actually refers to being in your awkward teenage years.

Another Spanish idiom related to age is ‘ser del año de la pera’. This translates to mean ‘being from the year of the pear’, and means to be very old.

Estar sin blanca’ literally translates to ‘to be without white’, but this common phrase actually means to be broke or poor.

Translating idioms

The trick to translating idioms, of course, is knowing when there is one in front of you. Translate an unknown idiom literally and there’s a good chance you’ll be barking up the wrong tree. But any translator worth his salt will not only be able to recognise these neat little expressions but seamlessly work their meaning into the target language too.

To be able to accurately convey the sense of the idiom is one thing; finding an equivalent phrase in the target language which also reflects the original tone and sentiment presents more of a challenge.

At STAR, our teams work into their native language so that each and every translation benefits from the translator’s inherent understanding of their language and its idiomatic nature. We pride ourselves on finding linguistically elegant solutions to these types of issues

and, as a result, providing translations which hit the nail on the head, every single time.