It’s raining cats and dogs.
Take it with a grain of salt.
Don’t beat a dead horse.
Have you ever noticed how confusing these expressions are?
If you’re a native English speaker, probably not. You just know from use and practice what each of these phrases means, irrespective of the meanings of the words that comprises them.
If you’re an English language learner, on the other hand, phrases like the above have probably been the cause of much frustration, since:
- To rain cats and dogs has everything to do with rain, but nothing to do with cats, nor dogs. Instead, it means to rain heavily.
- To take with a grain of salt does not require sodium chloride, nor that you or anyone else take possession of it. Instead, it requires viewing something with skepticism.
- To beat a dead horse can be done (thankfully) entirely without horses or any beatings involved. Instead, it can be done solely by wasting time on something without any chance of success.
These tricky phrases are known as idioms or idiomatic expressions.
What is an Idiom?
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, an idiom (or idiomatic expression) is:
A group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words.
Put plainly, idioms are phrases or sentences that mean something other than what they literally appear to mean.
Since the meaning of an idiomatic expression cannot be deduced from the meaning of its component words, idiomatic expressions are often (but not always):
- Unique to individual languages
- Difficult or impossible to translate literally from one language to another
- Difficult or impossible to look up in dictionaries (which often limit definitions to single words, and exclude phrases)
These traits mean that learning idioms can pose considerable problems for language learners. The ubiquity of idiomatic expressions, combined with the fact that they are difficult to translate or define using standard foreign language dictionaries, can cause lots of frustration for anyone wishing to understand them, or be understood while using them.
Fortunately, the Internet has made available three free online tools that can help you translate and understand idiomatic expressions.
3 Free Online Tools for Translating Idiomatic Expressions
Now it’s time to take a look at three excellent tools that you can use for translating idioms:
- Reverso Context
Reverso Context is an browser-based contextual dictionary. Unlike standard dictionaries, whereby you simply search a single word and get its translation in return, Reverso Context shows every searched-for word and/or phrase as it appears in…well…context.
Let’s look at a search for the wordy-but-common English expression “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” (It is preferable to have a small but certain advantage than a mere potential of a greater one.)
As you can see, a English-Spanish search for the phrase will bring up two columns of text, one in each language.
Each entry on the left column is a snippet of text that contains our searched-for expression in English. These text snippets, according to Reverso, are taken from “millions of previously translated texts, ranging from dialogues and official documents, to multilingual websites.”
The entries on the rightmost column are officially translated versions of that English snippet of text. In our example, the translated versions are in Spanish.
The strength of Reverso in its ability to pull translations from a wide range of sources, and give enough additional text (context) around your search term to help you determine if the translated version has the meaning you were looking for.
In our example, we can see that “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” can be translated one of several different ways:
- “Más vale pájaro en mano que ciento volando“.
- “Mejor pájaro en mano que cien pájaros volando.
- “Es mejor una en la mano que dos volando.”
- “Un pájaro en mano vale más que dos en un arbusto.”
Reverso’s setup allows you to easily compare and contrast a dozen or more translations at one time. If you’re a Spanish learner, doing this with the above results will reveal that even though our English expression can be translated a few different ways, the most commonly used version is “Más vale pájaro en mano que ciento volando” (in English, “A bird in hand is worth more than one hundred flying“).
This same approach can be used to easily decipher idiomatic expressions in any of the twelve languages Reverso offers (Arabic, German, English, Spanish, French, Hebrew, Italian, Dutch, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian and Russian).
Reverso Context is also available as an app, available on both iOS and Android.
Our second recommended tool, known as Linguee, functions in a manner very similar to that of Reverso Context.
Once you choose your input and output languages and type your query in the search bar, you will be presented with previously translated sentence pairs in both languages that contain the text you searched for.
Here are the results for “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” from English into Spanish.
As you can see, the results from Linguee are comparable to the one’s provided by Reverso; each entry shows your searched-for text surrounded by any additional text that came either before or after it in the sentence. In addition, Linguee’s results follow the same two-column format.
Searching for idiomatic expression translations using Linguee is much the same as it is for Reverso. Simply perform a search, and then compare and contrast your results among the sentence-pairs. If you see a particular translation of your idiomatic expression repeat itself across your search results, then you’ve likely found the translation you are looking for.
Use Linguee particularly if you are looking for formal idiomatic expressions, as opposed to informal ones. Linguee pulls most of its translations from institutional documents and websites (like the European Parliament and UNESCO), so informal phrases and expressions are much less likely to be found in its database.
Linguee’s translations are available in twenty-five different languages, including several Eastern European and Asian languages that are currently unavailable on Reverso.
Linguee is also available as a mobile app on iOS and Android devices.
Our third resource for translating idiomatic expressions is known as WordReference.
Unlike Reverso and Linguee, WordReference is not a database of bilingual sentence pairs pulled from official translations.
Instead, WordReference functions much more like a typical online dictionary: just type in the phrase you’re looking for, and see what’s listed in the results.
While most dictionaries only translate individual words, WordReference translates individual words as well as multi-word phrases and expressions. This means that WordReference is often very successful at providing translations of idiomatic expressions.
Below, you can see that just by writing “A bird in the hand…” in the WordReference search box, we are taken immediately to a dedicated page for that expression.
Here, we can look at a variety of useful information, such as:
- The English expression
- A literal translation of the expression, also in English
- Two alternate versions of the equivalent Spanish expression
- An example sentence in English
- An example sentence in Spanish
- Threaded forum discussions about the expression.
If the expression you’re searching for is common enough, WordReference should return the same variety of information, which should help you understand what the idiom means, how it is used across both languages, and how it is translated from one language to the next.
WordReference is currently available in fifteen language pairs, and is accessible through an app on both iOS and Android.
For language learners, learning idiomatic expressions can be one of the most confusing parts of acquiring new vocabulary.
These expressions are generally hard to translate, unique to each language, and difficult to look up in dictionaries. This makes both understanding and using them tiresome, as its nearly impossible to figure out what they mean unless you see them put to use in context.
Fortunately, where standard dictionaries fail in this regard, there are a number of web-based resources that succeed in helping you translate even the most far-flung of idiomatic expressions. These tools are Reverso Context, Linguee, and WordReference.
If you encounter a phrase that you can’t understand (despite knowing its component words) or would like to translate an idiom from your native language to your target language, use these resources. Each provides a wealth of information and context to help you nail down the meaning of even the most slippery of turns-of-phrase, and finally understand and use them, as a native would.