Idioms for Medical Interpreters: Part 1

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Why Are Idioms Important For Medical Interpreters?

Why 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 is not all about dense medical jargon. Even in the most serious appointment, people’s speech is peppered with various figures of speech such as idioms, proverbs, cultural references, and metaphors. 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).  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??? 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). 

You could argue that idioms and other figures of speech are just something we use to add a bit of color to our words and we don’t really need to concern ourselves with trying to figure them out. To this, I would remind you that accuracy means that we interpret everything fully, without omitting any part of the message. Also, consider this example:

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 were very good. 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.”

Here’s another 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.

How Do We Deal With Idioms?

So, now that I convinced you that idioms and other figures of speech should be taken seriously, let’s talk about how to deal with them.

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.

Literal Translation – Not Always Helpful

According to Nolan (2012),  one of the most common pitfalls that an interpreter needs to avoid when dealing with figures of speech is literal translation. Chances are if you interpret an idiom word by word, the result will be nonsensical.  In fact, 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”)

Hlepful Idiom Strategies

Instead of jumping into literal translation by default, follow these steps:

Idiom Strategy #1: 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.

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

Idiom Strategy #2: If you know or can easily understand its meaning from the context but cannot think of the equivalent in the target language – proceed to interpret the idea behind the idiom

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.

Idiom Strategy #3: 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.

Idiom Strategy #4: When you look up idioms in a dictionary, look up the whole phrase, rather than it’s individual parts.

To demonstrate what I mean, consider this example:

You already know your scans are clear? But I wanted to deliver the good news in person! Who spilled the beans?

Looking up individual parts of the idiom ‘to spill the beans‘ you would get ‘to spill = to accidentally pour a liquid out of its container‘ and ‘beans = a seed of various plants that is cooked and eaten“. However, as we learned from the definition of idioms, their meaning is different from the meaning of the individual words. So, spilling the beans has nothing to do with wasting delicious legumes but has everything to do with revealing secrets: to spill the beans means to let secret information become known. ( McMillan Dictionary).

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 Linguee, Multitran, 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 #5: 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).

Build Up Your Idiom Knowledge

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

Increase your exposure to idioms through books, movies, and TV shows

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.

Use social media to learn an idiom a day

You could subscribe to a free newsletter, delivering one new idiom into your email inbox every day. There are Facebook pages that regularly post new idioms, such as Idiom Connection and Idioms through Pictures. 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.

Listen to a podcast about idioms

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.”
  • Whole 9 Yards: “Whole 9 Yards is a weekly podcast that will simultaneously educate, astonish, and amuse. Listen while we share equivocal research about the origin of words, phrases, and idioms we use every day. From the team at Big Science Pods, we bring you the whole 9 yards, the entire kit and caboodle, the whole shebang of this quick, entertaining look at our language and the history therein.”

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.”
  • English Idioms and Phrases (Android)

Idiom Strategy #6: Idioms for Medical Interpreters: Practice Activities (practice makes perfect!)

If you’d like to practice interpreting idioms and figures of speech, check out this post where I prepared a series of self-guided practice activities which include glossaries, written exercises and audio recordings for consecutive interpretation practice.


Caffrey, D., 2013. More on medical idioms for providers and interpreters. [online] Siloam Family Health Center. Retrieved from:

Caffrey, D., 2013. Tips for providers and interpreters on dealing with idioms. [online] Siloam Family Health Center. Retrieved from:

Creeze, I. & Grant, L. (2013). Missing the Plot? Idiomatic Language in Interpreter Education. International Journal of Interpreter Education, 5 (1), 17-34. Retrieved from 2018. 29 Russian Idioms To Get Your Head Around. [online] Retrieved from:

Nolan, J., 2012. Interpretation: Techniques And Exercises. Bristol: Multilingual Matters

Featured image: Image by upklyak on Freepik

Useful Links

For a list of podcasts related to medicine in English, see here.

For more resources for medical interpreters, click here and here.

For recommendations for TV shows medical interpreters, click here.

More about the author: About Yuliya Speroff

To learn about self-care for medical interpreters, click here.
For practice activities for developing your note-taking skills, click here.
For ideas on glossary building, click here.

Interested in my interpreter training services and would like to collaborate? Read more about the workshops I am able to offer in Interpreter Training 

Want to get in touch? Contact me

13 responses to “Idioms for Medical Interpreters: Part 1”

  1. Fasika Bekele Avatar

    Thank you so much for the hard work in pulling this together and sharing with your fellow interpreters!! Fasika Bekele, Amharic Interpreter.

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