Idioms are a slam dunk…not!

rainstorm-156134_960_720Why is there an article on idioms in a blog for medical interpreters? Wouldn’t your time be better spent studying up on medical terminology or learning about medical procedures?

My answer to these questions is this: yes and no. Undoubtedly, fluency in medical terminology, as well as continuing education to keep up with new developments in medicine, are a must for healthcare interpreters. However, interpreting encounters in healthcare settings are not all dense medical jargon. And sometimes, it’s not the name of a new advanced treatment (monoclonal antibodies, anyone?) that will give you pause, but an idiomatic expression.

Idioms are an indelible part of any language. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines idioms as a group of words in a fixed order that have a particular meaning that is different from the meanings of each word on its own. Some examples of idioms are: it’s raining cats and dogs (=raining heavily), to spill the beans (=to reveal secret information), to kick the bucket (=to die, very informal).  Doctors, like all people, use idioms all the time. The thing about idioms though is that, while some are easy to figure out from the context, a great many others are tougher. For me, the hardest idioms are the ones that come from the world of sport since I`m not very familiar with American sports (What is a slam dunk???basketball-player-312240_960_720 Just kidding, I know what it is. Which is a good thing, because I recently heard it used by a doctor, as in: this procedure is a slam dunk). Since it would be impossible to write a blog post listing every idiom there is (according to Wikipedia, 25,000 idiomatic expressions are estimated to be in the English language), this post aims to raise interpreters’ awareness of idioms and  suggest some strategies for dealing with idioms during interpreting encounters, offer some ideas for learning idioms, and provide a practical translation exercise with real-life example sentences containing idioms.

As I was saying earlier, it’s entirely possible to be very proficient in all things medical but stumble when it comes to a colorful idiom. Let’s  consider this example: 

Doctor: I can’t tell you exactly what your treatment will involve until you have the surgery and the PET scan. When you ask me to lay the plan out now, you want me to put the cart before the horse.

What we have here is an oncologist telling a patient he was not ready to present his treatment plan yet because he needed to perform diagnostic surgery first (to see the full extent of the tumor) as well as the PET scan, which among other things, would show if cancer had spread. A very serious matter, so why was he talking about horses? The doctor was using the idiom to put the cart before the horse which means to do things in the wrong order.

Chances are if you interpret this sentence word by word, the result will be nonsensical.  So what DO we do when encountering idioms?

Idiom Strategy #1: DO NOT interpret idioms word for word unless you are sure that an exact idiom equivalent exists in your language.

  • Most of the time, interpreting/translating idioms word for word will result in complete and utter nonsense. Don’t believe me? Try figuring out the meaning of these sentences, literally translated from Russian:
  1. He`ll do it when the lobster on the mountain whistles. 
  2. I`ll show you where crayfish live in winter! 
  3. I felt like I wasn’t in my own plate. 
  4. I’d like to buy this dress but a toad is strangling me. 
  5. It’s true – I give you a tooth!

Unless you happen to be a Russian speaker, these sentences probably don’t make a whole lot of sense. Here’s what they mean:

  1. He`ll do it when the lobster on the mountain whistles: He’ll never do it. (English equivalent idiom: “when pigs fly”)
  2. I`ll show you where crayfish live in winter!: I will teach you a lesson!
  3. I felt like I wasn’t in my own plate: I felt out of place. (English equivalent idiom: “like a fish out of water”)
  4. I’d like to buy this dress but a toad is strangling me: I can’t bring myself to pay the price/I`m feeling stingy.
  5. It’s true – I give you a tooth!: I swear it’s true. (English equivalent idiom: “cross my heart”)
  • An exact equivalent might not exist in your language, especially when an idiom is culture-specific, or, for example, comes from a sport that is not played or is not popular in your country. If you know what the idiom means, interpret the meaning, not the actual words. If you are not sure, clarify with the person who said the idiom. You could argue that idioms are not significant enough to interrupt the flow of the appointment for but consider this sentence:

Doctor: I think you’re doing very well on this regimen. I looked at your test results and you knocked it out of the park!

In this example, the idiomatic expression conveys crucial information – the test results very very good. To understand this, you have to know that the phrase ‘to knock it out of the park’ means ‘to produce a spectacular achievement’. This idiom comes from baseball and, according to Wiktionary, this phrase is a variation of the phrase ‘hit one out of the ballpark’ and it means ‘to hit a fair ball so well that the ball flies over all of the spectators’ seats and lands outside the stadium.”

  • I suggest the following algorithm for interpreting idioms:
    • If you know the idiom or can easily understand its meaning from the context and can think of the equivalent in the target language – proceed to interpret the idiom
    • If you know or can easily understand its meaning from the context and but cannot think of the equivalent in the target language – proceed to interpret the idea behind the idiom
    • If you don’t know the idiom and cannot easily understand its meaning from the context, clarify with the person who used the idiom or ask for permission to look it up. Make a note of this idiom to look it up later.

I always carry a notebook with me for taking notes while I`m interpreting and I use the margins to jot down terms/idioms that I had difficulty with or need to look up later. Before I shred the notes, I make sure to transfer all these words and phrases to my vocabulary book.

In order to look up idioms, you could

  • Look up a translation of an idiom – you will typically find either an equivalent idiom or a longer translation explaining the meaning. Use your favorite dictionary to do this. For the Russian language, I recommend Multitran (I find that the web-based option is better for dealing with multi-word phrases), and Reverso Context which has a web-based service and a mobile phone app and, aside from Russian, also has Arabic, German, Spanish, French, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Dutch, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian.
  • Look up the meaning of an idiom in an English-English dictionary. My go-to online dictionaries are

Idiom Strategy #2: Expand your knowledge of idioms 

The more idioms you know, the easier it’ll be for you to deal with them when you encounter them. Since this blog is language-neutral, this part of the post will focus on ways to increase your knowledge of English language idioms. However, I encourage you do do the same for your other working language(s).

So, how do you learn more idioms? Here are some ideas.

  • Do lots of reading and watching. And not necessarily things related to medicine (although if you are interested in medical topics, I have a great post with suggestions for medical TV shows, books about doctors and medicine, as well as one on medicine-related podcasts). Any text can be a source of idioms – from science fiction novels to articles in the Economist. Similarly, any movie or a TV show can provide you with idioms on context. Just make sure to note down the idiom as well as an explanation of its meaning and/or a translation.
  • Subscribe to a free newsletter, delivering one new idiom into your email inbox every day.
  • Follow this Facebook account for a new idiom daily. Instagram also has lots of idiom-related accounts. For example, in addition to providing the meaning of each idiom, Idiom Land posts short video clips of TV shows and movies to show the idioms in context.
  • Subscribe to a podcast for learning idioms. I have found several podcasts, listed below (for more on what podcasts are and how to listen to them, check out this post)
    • Don’t Be an IdiomDon’t Be An Idiom is a podcast that explores the origin stories of common phrases and idioms. The podcast is based in Philadelphia and hosted by rambunctious loonies Albert and Ryan, two lifelong friends who have vowed to dispel their own ignorance about language and history one idiom at a time.
    • An Idiom a Day “A 5-Minute Dose of Idioms. Learn Something New Every Day.”
    • Idiom Savant The podcast that attempts to explore and explain the origins of common expressions in a manner that isn’t nearly as boring as this description.”
  • Get an app for learning idioms. Here are some ideas:
    • English Idioms Illustrated (IOS) “What is the meaning behind English IDIOMS, and where do they come from? Join Professor Potts and a MILLION users to discover the secret history of HUNDREDS of beautifully illustrated English idioms, from “Achilles’ heel” to “Wrong side of bed”.”
    • Idioms and Slang Dictionary by Farlex (IOS and Android)”Idioms and Slang Dictionary by Farlex gives you definitions and examples from top sources like McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin for more than 61,000 terms.”
    • English Idiom Cards (IOS). “Learn English idioms in a fun and easy way via 1000 flashcards with pictures and pronunciation.”
    • More ideas for Android in this article 

Idiom Strategy #3. Practice makes perfect 

To put into practice the above-mentioned strategies for dealing with idioms, I put together some examples sentences, which I reconstructed from my own interpreting encounters. Translate these sentences into your own language. For more authentic practice, get together with somebody who speaks the same language as you, take turns reading the sentences to each other and interpreting them, then give each other feedback.

  1. The surgery was a success but he’s not out of the woods yet. We`ll know more once he wakes up.
  2. I think you’re doing very well on this regimen. I looked at your test results and you knocked it out of the park!
  3. If you have any questions or concerns, please ask me or my team. It’s important that we’re on the same page before we start the treatment.
  4. As you know, there is a large fibromyoma in your uterus that extends into your cervix. While this looks like fibromyoma to me, there is a small chance that it is a tumor called sarcoma. When we remove the fibromyoma together with your uterus and cervix, we’ll send it to pathology. Now, I don’t want you to worry about the mass being a tumor. If it is, we`ll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, let’s focus on getting you ready for surgery. 
  5. Your annual physical went well, and aside from slightly elevated cholesterol, you’re fit as a fiddle
  6. While the treatment can have many side effects, they may not happen at all or may come on later. But you can definitely expect some fatigue right off the bat
  7. We want you to lose weight in small increments. Even though it might feel like you’re moving at a snail’s pace, as long as you’re losing a little every week, you’re on the right track. I know you were hoping for fast results, but we don’t just want for you to lose the weight, we also want you to keep it off. So go slow, and remember – good things come to those who wait
  8. The good news is that the new medicine is working for you and the fact that you are tolerating it so well is just the icing on the cake
  9. Patient: My insurance company is being very difficult. My daughter called them several times to make sure this procedure is covered but we are still not sure. I wish I didn’t have to deal with them! Doctor: You are preaching to the choir. They can make doing our job difficult as well.
  10. I sent the referral to the hospital that is more local to you. Fingers crossed, they’ll be able to give you your radiation treatments there. 

Good luck out there! If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions feel free to leave a comment below or get in touch using the Contact tab in the menu. Or comment with an idiom/idioms that you personally found difficult!

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