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Colourful Language and the Art of Translation

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

If there’s one word that springs to mind when I think about the definition of “language”, it’s that language is “colourful”. And I don’t just mean in the effing and blinding sense – often termed “colourful language” – though swearing is indeed an interesting facet of language in its own right. No, language is “colourful” because of its seemingly infinite intricacies. We can shape and mould language in a multitude of ways to meet a multitude of needs and express a multitude of emotions. This highlights how language can be fun, because we can adapt it, play around with it. Consequently, language changes over time and words and phrases become established and engrained in everyday use.

Rainbow drawn on the ground

This all makes language “colourful”. And one of the most colourful – playful, yet standard – forms of everyday language are idioms. Idioms are defined as commonly used expressions, established by usage, with a meaning that does not relate to the literal meaning of its words.

One form of idioms, this colourful use of language, are colour idioms. Like all forms of idioms, colour idioms are highly language specific. Native speakers use them frequently, “without batting an eyelid” (to quote an idiom…); non-native speakers may, however, “draw a blank”, or even “come a cropper” when faced with a colour idiom. Some transcend languages, drawing on direct equivalents; others differ greatly, or don’t have any equivalent at all.

In simple terms, “a colour is a colour”. Linguistically speaking, different languages have different names for colours, and may even categorise colour differently, in terms of shades and hues. Culturally speaking, however, is where colour associations can differ. Consider for example the colour red. In China, famed for its prominent use of the colour red, red is culturally – as well as historically and emotionally – strongly associated with good luck and prosperity. An association that is not mirrored in Britain or many other Western cultures.

Paint Colours

In addition to those colour idioms that transcend languages – for example, the direct French equivalent blanc comme neige for the English white as snow, both meaning “innocent”, or ut av det blå in Norwegian, which translates directly as the English idiom out of the blue – it therefore follows that colours can also be used differently in idioms across languages. Someone who is “green” in English, for instance, may be a number of things, including jealous (green with envy), but never afraid, as they would be in French (vert de peur, which literally translates as green with fear).

Likewise, the use of azul in the Portuguese idiom está tudo azul, for example. This literally translates as everything is blue. The problem here? If someone is feeling blue in English, the association is the exact opposite of what is implied in the Portuguese, where the literal meaning is everything is good with me.

Colour Pens in a Circle

This can then sound alarm bells when it comes to translation. Because colour idioms can be so language and culturally specific, there is a strong case for ensuring that the translator is not only a highly proficient writer in the target language, but also has both a strong command of the source language and a profound knowledge of both cultures, like all the linguists at Launch in Translation. It also highlights the importance of translators translating into their native language and of clients sourcing qualified and/or experienced translators and opting for a human, capable of understanding context and deciphering intricacies, over a machine.

Imagine, for instance, an Italian text for translation into English. The Italian text contains the colour idiom rosso come un peperone. This will be an all-too familiar saying to any Italian native speaker. In the hands of a non-native English speaker with little to no translation experience, this risks becoming red as a pepper in the target text. Red as a pepper has no meaning per se in English, and certainly doesn’t convey the meaning of someone being embarrassed. A native speaker would know this, and a good, human translator have successfully identified the Italian colour idiom in the text and translated this correctly as red as a tomato.

Colourful Knitting

While some colour idioms have equivalents, or near equivalents across languages, some have no equivalent from one language to the next. This poses an even greater possible pitfall for your translation. Let’s take as an example the German yellow colour idiom das Gelb vom Ei. Literally, this translates as the yellow of the egg, or the yoke. And, indeed, a quick German to English check in Google Translate brings up the yellow of the egg. Unless the text is actually referring to eggs, this will most probably not be the correct translation. Germans talk about das Gelb vom Ei when they want to say that something is a good thing. A machine will likely not pick up on the context, and therefore on this idiom, but a human translator will. Furthermore, through the power of transcreation, the linguist will endeavour to come up with another idiom that both conveys the same meaning in their own language, even if the reference to colours is lost, and carrys the same conversational tone of voice.

In this sense, it is clear to see that translation is a form of art: the translator the artist, with a love of (colourful) language, a keen eye for the intricacies of language, a strong understanding of both of the cultures in question and the necessary flair to paint a vibrant picture of the source text in its target form, and thereby engage the target audience.

With this in mind and our focus on colour idioms, below are some examples I came across during my research for this blog post that nicely illustrate differences between colour idioms in different languages and the outcome for the target text when translated by (a) a machine/potentially a non-native speaker or unqualified/inexperienced translator, likely to provide a more literal word-to-word translation, and (b) a professional human translator, someone skilled in the art of translation. Some are sure to provide amusement, and I think it will prove fair to say that literal translations of (any form of) idioms rarely “cut the mustard”!

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