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Idioms and phraseological units in translation. Deformation of idioms as a stylistic device.

Phraseology is the study of set (fixed) expressions, such as Word-combinations  (словосочетания), Collocations (устойчивые выражения), Phraseological units (фразеологические единицы), Idioms  proper (собственно идиомы), Proverbs (пословицы), Sayings (поговорки), Catch-phrases (афоризмы, крылатые выражения)

Basic terms of phraseology are: Degree of idiomaticity  - Gradual movement from phraseologically bound (restricted, fixed) to free word-combinations , The idiom principle - Certain meanings belong only to a given collocation – when a word is habitually brought together with another one to form a phrasal lexical item, Idiomatic code - particular code which bring units of language in correspondence with objects of reality Responsible for the rules of combinability of words.


Idiomatic/non-idiomatic phraseology

Idiomatic phraseology

Non-idiomatic phraseology

Phraseological units and idioms proper

white elephant – обуза

Habitual collocations or native-speaker syntactic choices

rogue elephant — дикий слон


Categories of word-combinations


Marked member

Unmarked member



Devastatingly bright person – убийственно яркая личность

Fluent speech – беглая речь

Cliché-ed expressions

Highly strung – чувствительный, нервозный

Jolly good! – Здорово!


In blue moon –

целую вечность

Perishingly cold –

Адский холод

Conceptual integrity

Blue sky – голубое небо

Blue study – тяжелые раздумья

Thematic and sociolinguistic determination

Green revolution –

«Зеленая революция»

Fresh air – свежий воздух













Implications for contrastive analysis and translation:



Phraseological units, idioms proper

  • Phraseologically bound meaning (idiomatic).
  • A word is habitually brought together with another one to form a phrasal lexical item.


burning question – животрепещущий вопрос

reverent attitude — благоговейное отношение

unsuccessful inquiry - безрезультатный поиск

  • The way words combine in a language to produce natural sounding speech and writing.
  • Varies from totally free (see a women/tree/house) to totally fixed expressions (see dander/reason/the point)
  • Semantic prosody.
  • Strong or weak collocation
  • The Russian National Corpus
  • The International Corpus of Learner English (ICLE)
  • Are characterized by the highest degree of globality of nomination.
  • The main rule of translating idioms:

Phraseological item in target language should have the same cultural meaning and similar style and expressivity as item in source language. (Рецкер)

According to this rule:

с ног до головы = to one's fingertips

straight face = невозмутимый вид

Three main strategies of translating idioms

Equivalent idioms

Parallel analogue

Descriptive translation

  • Phraseological unit in TL coincides with the source unit in terms both form and content.
  • Massacre of the Innocents = избиение младенцев
  • Semi-opaque idioms:
  • Hе терять головы — keep one's head,
  • Show a clean pair of heels – бежать наутек (сверкая пятками).
  • Literal translation:
  • To go against the stream – идти против течения.
  • Equivalent conveys the same meaning based on different image
  • Not fit to hold a candle to someone – в подметки не годится.
  • A bulbous nose – нос картошкой
  • Black dog – тоcка зеленая
  • To carry coals to Newcastle – ездить в Тулу со своим самоваром
  • Give him an inch and he'll take a yard - дай ему палец, он всю руку откусит 
  • Rendering an underlying idea by means of non-idiomatic phrase.
  • Hungry as a hunter – дико голоден (или голодный, как волк)
  • Oбъяснить на пальцах — explain as simply as possible
  • Рукой подать – near, not far from, soon.


In English idiom is an object of “language creativity” while in Russia it is a folk wisdom, like proverbs. That is why we can’t always find an equivalent for some fixed expressions. Specific idioms, especially culture-bounded ones, are “cultural untranslatable” expressions (to know the ropes – знать все ходы и выходы, быть как дома, вовсем разбираться и т.д.)

The main principle of translating idioms is understanding of their meaning.

Some idioms have both literal and idiomatic meaning. In this case we deal with phenomenon of “deformation od idioms” or “double actualization” – both interpretations equally can be used: the straight and narrow path has its idiomatic equivalent «стезя добродетели», but it can be successfully translated literally as «прямая и ближайшая дорога на небо». Deformation od idioms is a stylistic device, because choice dependson stylistic aspect of translation.


Would you plunge a soul into the fiery furnace, and a minister at hand to point out the straight and narrow path?

(J. Fennimore Cooper “The Spy”)

«Вы бы поместили душу в горячее пекло или отдали её священнику, чтобы указать ей прямую и ближайшую дорогу на небо?»

(Дж. Ф. Купер «Шпион»)


Another way is translation with variants: rough and tumble – схватка, рискованные приключения морской жизни, удары судьбы.  Это т.н. обертональный перевод, который стилистически выразителен в отличие от нейтрального гнездового (дающегося в словаре).

  • He had been successful in his rough and tumble with the Limoran. – Oн вышел победителем из схватки с Эльмораном
  • The old brig in which I had spent nearly a year, and got the first rough and tumble of a sea-life. – Старый бриг, на котором я провел около года и впервые испытал рискованные приключения морской жизни»
  • He was angry with her, himself, and the man Hughes; and suffered from anger as only they can who are not accustomed to the rough-and-tumble of things. – Он сердился на неё, на себя и этого Хьюза, и сам страдал оттого, что сердился, как только могут страдать люди, не привыкшие к ударам судьбы.
06.03.2016; 06:00
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