Words that go together: lexical collocations and idiomatic expressions.

There are words that become inseparable as soon as they meet. A lexical bond is created that allows them to stay close to each other and remain forever thus.

Dear friends of STUDIOTRE, today we want to talk to you about a connection that forms between words, which is particularly challenging for translators: lexical collocations and idiomatic expressions.

What is a lexical collocation?

If, when reading a text or listening to a conversation, you came across the expression “To respond to the door”, you would turn your nose up at it; your brain would automatically tell you that these words do not go together because “they sound strange”.

Instead, it would tell you that “To answer the door” sounds better. Even though respond and answer can be synonyms, only the verb answer would be seen by an English mother-tongue speaker as the correct verb to associate with “the door”.

To answer the door” and “To waste time” are two examples of lexical collocations, expressions formed by two or more words which have a recurring, regular and special association.

What is an idiomatic expression?

Let’s take the phrase “To answer the door” or “To waste time”: if we change them to “To answer the front door” or “To waste lots of time”, they keep their meaning, while taking on certain subtle nuances. In fact, lexical collocations are flexible and allow several variations.
While if we take the phrase “The ball is in your court” and we try to replace “your court” with “the court/the courts/the clay court”, this expression completely loses its original meaning of “It’s your turn to make the next move” and can only be interpreted in its literal meaning.

In fact, “The ball is in your court” is an idiomatic expression  with a fixed structure and, according to the definition by the linguist, A.P. Cowie, set in stone and frozen in time. A phrase – typical of a specific language – whose meaning does not come from the lexical combination of the individual parts of speech, but from how speakers are used to interpreting it.

How do you translate lexical collocations and idiomatic expressions?

Translating collocations and sayings is a challenge for translators but also a chance to give free rein to their creativity. They are some of the most complicated things to translate because they are rooted in the historical and cultural foundations of the language and are very metaphorical.

For both collocations and idiomatic expressions, the link between the words is arbitrary and cannot just be explained through grammatical rules: in fact, each language uses its lexicon in its own way and a typical, recurring combination of two words in one language might be unnatural in another.

What are the most common problems that a translator comes across?
  • There are no equivalent expressions in the target language or the concept expressed in the source language is completely unknown in the target language culture.
  • There are equivalent expressions in the target language, but they are used in different contexts.
  • There are equivalent expressions in the target language, but there are differences in register or frequency of use.
What translation strategies can you use?
  • Look for an expression in the target language with a similar form and meaning.
  • Look for an expression in the target language that has a similar meaning, but a different structure.
  • Paraphrase it or add notes and extra information inside the text.


Are there any lexical collocations and idiomatic expressions that have given you a hard time or have simply intrigued you? Share your experience with us on our Facebook page (http://bit.ly/STUDIOTRE-Facebook) or on LinkedIn (http://bit.ly/STUDIO-TRE-Linkedin)!


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