Missing the Plot? Idiomatic Language in Interpreter Education


Volume 5 (1) ~ May 2013

ISSN # 2150-5772 – This article is the intellectual property of the authors and CIT. If you wish to use this article in your teaching or in another format, please credit the authors and the CIT International Journal of Interpreter Education.

Missing the Plot? Idiomatic Language in Interpreter Education

Ineke Crezee
Auckland University of Technology
Lynn Grant
Auckland University of Technology
Correspondence to: icrezee@aut.ac.nz

Download PDF (365 KB)


This article documents a three-part research project, conducted over the course of three 12-week semesters, aimed at examining how student interpreters dealt with idiomatic language in terms of recognition and (cross-cultural) interpreting approaches. In the project, we combined investigative strands involving cross-cultural communication and pragmatics with corpus-based interpreting resources. We used a corpus of real-life documentary-style television programs featuring natural spoken language in context—ambulance paramedics, customs and immigration staff, and police officers during their day-to-day interactions with members of the public—that had been recorded for research purposes. Appropriate interpretation requires understanding commonly used idiomatic expressions occurring in natural language. In the study, we had interpreting students watch reality programs not only to test their ability to recognize such idiomatic language in their second language (L2) within the context of ambient and nonverbal cues, but also, by eliciting their preferred approach to interpreting such language, to gauge their awareness of cross-cultural and pragmatic issues.

Background and Rationale for Study

The Multilingual Interpreting Classroom

In the context of this article, we define interpreting as the production of oral output based on other-language input consisting of impromptu oral discourse, based on Shlesinger’s definition (1998, p. 487).  We chose this definition because a majority of the students who participated in the study were training to engage in either consecutive or simultaneous “dialogue interpreting” (Mason, 1999) in a range of public service settings. Valero-Garcés (2003) referred to the changing role of translation and interpreting in the public services of countries, such as New Zealand, in which there is an emerging multiculturalism. At present, the three main interpreting and translation services in the Auckland, New Zealand, area cater to the communicative needs of migrants and refugees representing up to 190 different community languages, including some languages of limited diffusion.
Interpreters have traditionally been trained in bilingual classrooms, with emphasis on A and B language consolidation and interpreting practice. Auckland University of Technology was the first educational institution in New Zealand to offer translation and interpreting programs. We established interpreting classes in accordance with those run in preparation for accreditation with the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI) in Australia, differing only in the language-specific nature of such courses. One of the main perspectives underpinning our pedagogical approach is that interpreter training programs should aim to develop practitioners who are aware, reflective, and resourceful (Bernardini, 2004; González-Davies, 2004). We encourage students to be aware that “they are not simply ‘trans-coders’ substituting word for word, but constructors of meaning, mediators of culture” (Bernardini, 2004, p. 20). Student interpreters must develop this critical ability.
During the first year of studies, students practice consecutive interpreting of dialogues, and in later years, sight translation and consecutive and simultaneous interpreting of 300-word passages. Every week trainee interpreters are given three simulated real-life dialogues to interpret in triads, pairs, or individually in the computer laboratory. They receive language-specific formative assessment in the form of feedback from their language peers while interpreting in the classroom or through the Blackboard Collaborate Voice Authoring tool. Practice material and texts reflect the range of materials with which New Zealand–based interpreters may realistically be confronted.

Understanding Idiomatic Language

Idiomatic language has been described in a number of different ways, however, idioms have been traditionally defined as expressions whose meanings are not the functions of the meanings of their individual parts (Chomsky, 1980; Fernando, 1996; Fraser, 1970). Usage of idiomatic language is common, not just in general English (Grant & Nation, 2006) but also in the language use of professionals, who may use idiomatic language in an attempt to put patients or members of the public at ease. Interpreting students thus must develop awareness and reflectiveness in relation to their ability to choose appropriate approaches to interpreting idiomatic language (cf. Baker, 2011). In relation to translation, some authors (cf. Horodecka & Osadnik, 1992, p. 34) have suggested that replacing a source-language idiomatic expression with a plain-language translation fails to reach equivalence in terms of metaphorical meaning. Baker (1992) provided many examples illustrating the difficulties in translating idioms by means of equivalent idioms, and he suggested paraphrasing may often be the chosen approach, to avoid translators choosing near-equivalent idiomatic expressions with a slightly different emphasis or meaning. In relation to interpreting, Morris (1999, as cited in Hale, 2008, p. 115) asserted that interpreting involves “gaining an understanding of the intentions of the original-language speaker and attempting to convey the illocutionary force of the original utterance,” adding that this “understanding will be to some extent a personal, i.e., a subjective one.” Hale stated that “the interpreter’s very difficult role is to understand the intention of the utterance and portray it as faithfully as possible in the other language” (Hale, 2008, p. 115). Although it may not be possible to ever be sure about the intention behind other people’s utterances, interpreters can “be faithful to their own interpretation of the original utterance,” as that is the best they can be expected to do (Hale, 2008, p. 115). For this study, we feel that paraphrasing may be the most “risk-averse” approach to recommend to student interpreters in this context.
From 1999 to 2005, students in liaison interpreting (Gentile, Ozolins, & Vasalikakos, 1996) courses were taught 120 idiomatic expressions taken from Grant and Devlin (1999). Students would initially express surprise at the existence of expressions such as up in the air, mixed bag, box of birds, and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, often saying that they had never heard these used. However, once they learned the expressions, students would almost invariably tell the lecturer that they now heard them used “all the time.” This experience demonstrates the importance of raising awareness of such expressions among student interpreters. It also suggests that interpreter education can benefit from research focusing on the inclusion of natural idiomatic language in class material (cf. Grant, 2007). However, simply teaching lists of idioms will not be enough. Native speakers of a language learn to deduce the meaning of idiomatic language bundles from the context in which they are used. Selecting examples of idiomatic language for use in interpreter education should ideally be based on a corpus of the use of such language by professionals involved in areas of public service in which interpreter graduates might end up working.

Importance of Context in Understanding Idiomatic Language

Different authors (Gumperz, 1981, 1982; Hale, 2004, 2007; Hymes, 1997) have commented on the many aspects of linguistic interaction that determine how words are to be understood in context. Many forms of idiomatic language could be described as forms of collocations. Ellis (2001) noted that L1 learners learn collocations (such as idioms) as a whole, whereas Wray (2000) commented that L2 learners learn these as “separate items.” Durrant and Schmitt (2010, p. 182) held that the collocation knowledge of L2 learners is “more likely to be the result of insufficient exposure to a language than of a fundamentally different approach to learning.” Student interpreters participating in the current idiomatic language study commented on the “informal language” use by paramedics and police officers in the Australian and New Zealand context, where paramedics addressed patients with “darling” and “good man!” and police officers addressed alleged offenders as “mate.” Overall, student interpreters felt such language use was acceptable in the Australian and New Zealand context, reflecting an attempt by the professionals to make their interlocutors feel at ease. However, discussing approaches to interpreting informal register and the pragmatic implications thereof is beyond the scope of this study.
In the current study, we decided to provide student interpreters with idiomatic language in its audiovisual context, in order to provide information about the many aspects of linguistic interaction that determine how words are to be understood in context (Hymes, 1997; Hale, 2007). We thought that providing the context not only would allow student interpreters to deduce the intended meaning of certain expressions, but it might also enable them to paraphrase the idiomatic language—paraphrasing being an important skill for interpreters and translators (Baker, 2011; van der Merwe, 2001).

Corpus Studies and Interpreting

Several authors have looked at idiomatic language use in translation studies (e.g. Baker, 1995; Kruger, Wallmach, & Munday, 2011). Shlesinger (1998) was one of the first interpreting researchers to examine applications for corpus-based studies to the area of interpreting. She explored two ways in which interpreting could be fruitfully examined using corpora, the second of which involves using existing monolingual corpora as “sources for materials relevant for testing hypotheses about interpreting” (1998, p. 1). Shlesinger argued that the field of interpreting studies “needs the techniques and methodology of corpus linguistics to make the major leap from prescriptive to descriptive statements, from methodologizing to proper theorizing, and from individual and fragmented pieces of research to powerful generalizations” (1998, p. 6). Since Shlesinger’s (1998) writings, corpus-based translation studies (CTS) has gained recognition as a major paradigm for analysis in the area of both translation and interpreting studies. Setton (2011, p. 35) succinctly described the usefulness of CTS to interpreting pedagogies: “Research in support of interpreter training and quality aims to identify the main factors in the success or failure of interpretation and the acquisition of interpreting expertise.” The present study used material extracted from an existing corpus (described in more detail below) to test hypotheses about the usefulness of including such language in interpreting pedagogies. Whereas Shlesinger (1998) looked mainly at (student) interpreters’ output, this study examined the types of input that might cause interpreters problems and the types of strategies they might apply to address such issues. An added rationale for choosing a corpus-based approach was the fact that researchers would be able to confirm the frequency of use of certain expressions as a basis for inclusion in interpreting practice material.

Interpreting Idiomatic Language

Figures of speech may pose a real problem for interpreters (Nolan, 2005; Santiago & Barrick, 2007). In a study, Nolan (2005) asked students of (conference) interpreting to provide interpretations/translations that conveyed the speaker’s “substantive point.” “Accuracy is more important than affectation” (Nolan, 2005, p. 77), and for figures of speech, as for all other forms of speech, the interpreter’s job is to get the gist of the meaning across to the audience. With regard to translating or interpreting proverbs, another type of idiomatic language, translators and interpreters should attempt “to grasp the underlying idea from the contact” (Nolan, 2005, p. 78), a similar recommendation to Baker’s (1992) proposed best translation strategies with regard to idioms and fixed expressions. Nolan (2005) pointed out that interpreters should take care to avoid the common pitfall of not recognizing figurative or idiomatic language and translating it literally. During Nolan’s study, some students did comment that the tasks had made them realize that they had occasionally translated idiomatic expressions in the literal sense, not having recognized them for what they were.
Idiomatic language may include phrasal verbs, and these may present a problem to interpreters because their meanings are often ambiguous, can be idiomatic, and are dependent on their context. Trebits (2009), quoting Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad, and Finegan (1999), also commented on the fact that nonnative speakers of a language may “lack adequate strategies to recognize and process” phrasal verbs (2009, p. 470). This comment fits the profile of student interpreters, including those in the current study. Other theorists (e.g., Koguri, Kume, & Iida, 1990) have argued for an illocutionary-act-based translation of dialogue, taking into account the sociopragmatics of the context. An example of this from the present study is a speaker commenting that young drivers “light up,” relating not to them lighting a cigarette or being enthusiastic about a new concept, but to taking off in their fast cars. Interpreters should realize that although an informal phrasal verb like “light up” may be acceptable in English in the given context, it may need to be interpreted in a slightly more formal register in certain target languages and in certain situations (Baker, 1992). This again calls for the use of a corpus of natural language from which examples for translation and interpreting are taken. Biber et al. (1998, as cited in Trebits, 2009) also argued that “a carefully compiled collection of naturally occurring language can be useful for language teaching.” Indeed, as we will argue, such a corpus can also be useful for helping student interpreters develop adequate strategies for the recognition and translation/interpreting of idiomatic language.



As stated above, the present study used material extracted from an existing small, specially compiled corpus to test hypotheses about interpreting pedagogies. The corpus consists of the written transcripts of language used in 80 recorded reality television programs shown on New Zealand television between 2003 and 2011, with most of them dating from 2009 to 2011. All documentaries featured “real-life drama” showing paramedics and immigration, customs, prison, and police officers interacting with members of the public. Approximately half of them showed these professionals at work in New Zealand; the other half were in settings in Australia (Australian and New Zealand English are considerably similar in terms of expressions used and also in terms of the ways speakers interact with each other).
Shlesinger (1998) mentioned that transcription fails to represent the concomitant paralinguistic dimensions of linguistic output; in other words, it is important to have information about the way in which speakers uttered a certain expression, including their tone of voice, pitch, volume, intonation, and emphasis. Features of nonverbal communication such as gaze, facial expression, or posture should also be taken into account, as they add to the overall “message.” Baker (1993) too emphasized the need to study real data. We therefore decided to present the students with audiovisual representations of the spoken language by showing scenes from reality documentary-type programs, thus providing both setting and nonverbal context.
The corpus was used for three different tasks, all based on chunks of idiomatic language taken from it: (a) an idiom recognition task, (b) three paraphrasing tasks (two of them accompanied by video clips), and (c) interpreting practice followed by a brief questionnaire.


The study involved students in four different undergraduate interpreting courses: liaison interpreting, advanced interpreting health, advanced interpreting legal, and telephone interpreting and videoconferencing. Students represented a broad range of sociolinguistic backgrounds, with a large majority (96%) having English as an additional language (EAL). Applicants for interpreting programs at the university are always asked about the extent of their exposure to both of their working languages, in particular about the number of years spent working with colleagues speaking the applicants’ second language (L2). This is done to ensure that student interpreters can comprehend natural and idiomatic language used in everyday contexts. Subjects in the study presented here consisted of students enrolled in four different interpreting classes in Semester 2 of 2010 (pilot study) and in Semesters 1 and 2 of 2011.
Approval was granted from the university Ethics Committee to work with students currently enrolled in interpreting courses, and those students who agreed to participate gave written consent. The author who did not teach the students carried out the research component where students were presented with information on the study and presented with the idioms tests in class. These exercises followed Nolan’s practice of presenting idioms in context (2005, p. 102), but the researchers added an audiovisual dimension to this. A total of 36 students initially signed consent forms agreeing to participate in the study. Students who chose not to participate in the research could still participate in the class without any adverse consequences. The administering of tests was carried out in Weeks 2, 6, and 10 of the 12-week course in Semester 1 of 2011. Of the 36 student interpreters who consented to participate, only 30 completed all of the idioms tests (due to absence or illness), so only findings for these 30 participants were included.

Three-Part Study

The study had three distinct parts. The first was a pilot study to test the participants’ ability to recognize idiomatic expressions in transcripts of natural language, as well as their ability to identify the correct meaning of such expressions. In the second part of the study, participants (n = 36) were shown excerpts from the transcriptions of the documentaries and asked to paraphrase the meaning of idiomatic expressions used by the speakers. In the third part, participants practiced with dialogues based on the transcripts of the programs and were asked what approach they had taken to interpret these.


Part 1: Pilot Study

The 12-week pilot study involved a group of students (n = 53) in Week 2 completing pre- and posttest multiple-choice (MC) questionnaires testing their familiarity with 30 examples of idiomatic language taken from the corpus. Students were then given transcripts and asked to identify idiomatic expressions within them. Some students were able to pinpoint idiomatic expressions in context and paraphrase these accurately, whereas other students seemed to “read over the top” of such expressions without identifying them as idiomatic. In Week 10, and 3 weeks following this identification and paraphrasing task, students were given the same MC idiom recognition test they had been given in Week 2, to see if their familiarity with the idioms given had improved. We considered using a different MC test in order to avoid bias (Brown, 2004, p. 317) in the second round due to memory effects, but decided to use the same test for ready comparison of results. As it was, memory effects were not observed to be significant. Results showed that students varied considerably in their ability to recognize the correct meaning of the language excerpts given. It is interesting to note that whereas some students seemed to have become more familiar with the idioms, others appeared to have become more confused, scoring lower on the posttest than on the pretest. This was particularly true for those who had shown little familiarity with the idiomatic expressions in the pretest, suggesting that guessing might have been the strategy used by some. Low scores in the MC test also seemed to be associated with a lesser ability to recognize idiomatic expressions in the transcripts. Results of the pre- and posttests are shown in Figure 1 below. Anecdotal evidence suggested that those students whose test scores had improved had a real interest in broadening their knowledge of idiomatic language and had consciously tried to memorize any idioms they had not been familiar with prior to the pretest.
Figure 1: Results of pre- and posttests: Identifying correct meaning of idiomatic expression

Image 1

The posttest also contained a few questions asking how interpreting students perceived the importance of gaining familiarity with idiomatic expressions. Answers showed that 61% of respondents thought it extremely important for interpreting students to be familiar with this language, whereas 32% thought it was very important, and 7% thought it was quite important (moderately important). From various options given, respondents selected interacting with colleagues at work as the best way to learn such expressions, closely followed by watching ordinary television programs and watching reality television programs showing professionals at work (Figure 3). One student commented, “I think that sometimes I miss some form of idiomatic expressions; for instance, I recently learned that ‘with his head held high’ means ‘with confidence,’ but I take it literally [sic].”

Figure 2: Importance attached to interpreters’ familiarity with idiomatic expressions
IMage 2

Figure 3: Best way for interpreting students to gain familiarity with idiomatic languageImage 3

4.2 Part 2

Prior to Part 2 of the study, we presented a small group of students (n = 6) with audiovisual material taken from one of the documentary programs for interpreting in the computer laboratory. This material showed a corrections dog handler searching the car of a prison visitor and finding some contraband. After the female visitor had given the dog handler increasingly different responses as to whether she knew the contraband was there and why she had this in her car, he ended up telling her, “Your story doesn’t wash.” Students reported that without the transcripts they would have found it more difficult to pick up on the meaning and said that they used the audiovisual context and perceived information about the relationship between the speakers on the screen to surmise the meaning of the idiomatic expressions used. Context-related information also provided clues of a sociopragmatic nature that assisted student interpreters in paraphrasing the idiomatic expressions appropriately in the target language (TL). This supported our decision to present interpreting students with a combination of excerpts from written transcripts and audiovisual material.
Over a 10-week period, a group of interpreting students (n = 33, on average) were shown excerpts from the documentaries in which idiomatic expressions were used. In Weeks 2 and 6 of the period, students were shown excerpts featuring paramedics speaking to patients; the excerpt shown in Week 10 showed a police officer speaking to two teenagers about drugs found in their vehicle. One of the researchers handed out the transcripts of the scene, and students then watched the scene in which the idiomatic expressions in question were used. Students were then asked to paraphrase the expressions in question.

Idiom Task Week 2

As part of the Week 2 idiom task, students (n = 35) were shown a scene in which a “boy racercar had landed upside down in a paddock or field in rural New Zealand. In New Zealand, young males driving “souped-up” or modified cars to drive at excessive speeds are commonly referred to as boy racers or hoons. The transcript contained a total of seven idiomatic expressions for students to paraphrase. Student interpreters had average scores of 57% correct overall, with some outliers. Other items proved less straightforward, and only a few student interpreters correctly paraphrased the expression remarkably unscathed for a chap that’s um ripping scum off, with 34% “half-guessing” its meaning given the audiovisual context. The expression was used by a paramedic surveying the crash scene where the car had crashed through a gate and landed upside down in a field. Some examples of student interpreters half-guessing the meaning of this idiom were: “The driver is surprisingly uninjured compared with the scene he made through the crash” and “It is surprising that the person has very minor injuries considering the extent of the accident…ripping scum off … describing the extent of the damage done by the car.” The most familiar expression in the transcript proved to be “he should buy a Lotto ticket,” meaning that he was very lucky (88% correct).

Idiom Task Week 6

In Week 6, student interpreters (n = 34) were shown a scene in which a cyclist in his 60s had suffered cardiac arrest while riding up a hill that had proved one hill too many, and he had ended up out cold. En route to the hospital, ambulance officers were talking about a catch22 in terms of how to treat the patient, as they felt the patient might have had a heart attack, but he might also be suffering from internal bleeding, so the treatment would be very different. Students were given a total of 11 idiomatic expressions in the transcript to paraphrase. Some of these appeared to be more familiar to students than others, with 77% of student interpreters correctly paraphrasing items such as get him back into this world and 87% correctly paraphrasing the meaning of the paramedics wishing to have a close look at the cyclist’s heart. Other items proved less straightforward, and only a few student interpreters correctly paraphrased it is sort of like a catch22 (20% correct), one hill too many (37%), and absolutely cold (53%), meaning unconscious and unresponsive.

Idiom Task Week 10

In Week 10, student interpreters (n = 30) were shown a scene in which two teenage drivers had been stopped by a police officer. A search of the vehicle had then revealed some drug-smoking implements, and the boys were subsequently questioned about the presence of a “bong.” Students were given a transcript with 24 idiomatic expressions underlined and had to rely solely on these transcripts, because researchers were unable to access the associated audiovisual material due to technical problems. Student interpreters said they found it much harder to complete the idiom task without access to the audiovisual context, but they were still able to correctly paraphrase some common expressions. One example of an expression that students found difficult to correctly interpret was two boy racers light up, which could be interpreted to mean lit a cigarette or took off quickly in their cars. It was clear from the audiovisual clip that the latter meaning had been intended; however, because student interpreters did not have access to contextual information, most were unable to produce a correct paraphrase. Findings for Week 10 are presented in Table 1 below.

Table 1: Most familiar and least familiar expressions in Idiom Task Week 10 (n = 30)
Idiomatic expressions ranked from most familiar to least familiar Correctly paraphrased Half-guessed*
He might be clean 87%
He is quickly on their tails 83%
[Their] troubles aren’t going away 83%
Pot [marijuana] 77%
These guys are just digging a bigger hole for          themselves 53%
It’s Tony’s turn to bat  50%
Classic, man! 33% 10%
He has rolled pretty quickly 20%
[this street is] Hoon Central 10% 7%
He gets bolshy 6% 20%
Two boy racers light up 3%

*The term half-guessed refers to replies that students almost paraphrased correctly. (See the section Idiom Task Week 2, above, for examples of half-guessing.)

Part 3

Part 3 of the study involved researchers giving students different mp3 practice files based on the course they were taking. The health interpreting students’ practice files were based on a transcript taken from an Australian reality television program showing Australian paramedics and emergency department staff interacting with patients. The liaison interpreting practice files were taken from a New Zealand reality television program showing customs officers at work. After they practiced with the dialogues, students received the accompanying transcripts in which the idiomatic language items had been highlighted. They were asked to put a check next to those they were familiar with and a cross next to expressions they had found unfamiliar. They were also asked some brief questions about their approach to interpreting such expressions. Students found it difficult to interpret some “on the spot” and admitted that they had sometimes chosen a verbatim interpretation due to time constraints. A majority stated they would have chosen to paraphrase such expressions given more time. A small minority admitted they had not recognized the idiomatic expressions for what they were when played the mp3 files and had therefore chosen a literal interpretation. Table 2 shows the idiomatic expressions that appeared in the liaison interpreting practice dialogue, which featured customs officers discovering a large stash of illegal drugs hidden in imported couches.

Table 2: Interpreting students’ ability to interpret idiomatic expressions used in dialogue taken from documentary

Not familiar with expression

Able to paraphrase

Able to use equivalent

Customs are sitting pretty with their latest find 33% 53% 13%
Smugglers are continually coming up with more deceptive methods of concealing drugs 13% 27% 60%
Erm it looked very cheap and nasty and alerted us immediately 13% 67% 20%
so let’s pull this up and …Hello! That there is Contac NT 27% 40% 33%
we didn’t pick it up on X-Ray. 40% 60%
But despite the P traffickers’ best attempts 40% 33% 27%
… these couches did not make it past the ports 7% 33% 60%
It took officers all day to strip the couches and not one was legit 33% 33% 33%
It sort of puts a smile on your face. It makes you realise why we do what we do 20% 47% 33%
And once we get all the drugs off, weighed and counted then probably call it a night 20% 47% 33%

Following the last task, students were again asked to rate the importance of (student) interpreters being familiar with idioms, as shown in Figure 4. They were also asked what their preferred approach to interpreting idiomatic expressions would be. Figure 5 shows interpreting students’ preferred strategies when confronted with idiomatic expressions whose meaning was unfamiliar to them.

Figure 4: Awareness of the importance of recognizing idiomatic language posttest (n = 33)

IMage 4

Figure 5: Posttest questionnaire: Interpreting students’ strategies for interpreting unfamiliar idiomatic expressions (n = 33)
image 5
When the students were asked what they would do once the meaning of an unfamiliar idiomatic expression had been explained to them, 91% said they would paraphrase it. This left 6% who said they would interpret it “word for word” and 3% who said they would try another approach, without specifying which one.

Discussion and Recommendations

Our study lends support to Shlesinger’s (1998) and Setton’s (2011) arguments for the successful use of corpus linguistics to inform interpreting studies and interpreting pedagogies. The current study used excerpts from a corpus of natural language taken from reality television programs. Student interpreters in the study agreed that it is important for interpreters to be familiar with idiomatic expressions commonly used in L2 settings. The research also supports the importance of creating awareness and an ability to reflect on translation and interpreting problems and possible approaches, as advocated by Bernardini (2004) and Gonzalez Davies (2004), and the applicability of such approaches to interpreting studies. The tasks in the current study raised the awareness of interpreting students as to the frequency of idiomatic language. Not only did students realize that they had to be prepared to encounter idiomatic language in a variety of settings, but they were also encouraged to develop appropriate strategies for interpreting such linguistic items. A majority of student interpreters felt that the best way to gain familiarity with such language would be through exposure to actual conversations with friends and colleagues. Initial MC tests asking respondents to identify the correct meaning of particular expressions taken from real-life documentary television programs showed that students differed in their familiarity with idiomatic expressions. Posttest results showed that most respondents had become more aware of the meaning of particular expressions. The study also showed that student interpreters were better able to deduce the meaning of such language when it was presented to them within its original context, using audiovisual clips. This allowed them to consider important context-related aspects involving register and sociopragmatics when deciding on the most appropriate TL rendition. Most students chose paraphrase as their preferred interpreting strategy for idiomatic language (cf. Baker, 1992, 2011).
The findings of the study also confirmed some aspects of the interview procedure used at our university to identify students’ ability to successfully engage in translation and interpreting programs. As stated before, aspiring interpreting students’ comprehension of and exposure to natural and idiomatic language used is checked at the admission interview stage.
One of the limitations of this study is the heterogeneous nature of the participant group, particularly in terms of exposure to everyday idiomatic language use in the students’ L2. As an example, a number of Korean students interacted mostly with members of their own language community and watched Korean television programs over satellite. This appeared to impact their ability to recognize and correctly interpret idioms and other idiomatic language in their L2, English. Another limitation was the possibility of recall bias occurring in the posttest comprising MC questions relating to 30 idioms taken from the reality television programs. A final limitation relates to the small number of participants at a single university.

Recommendations and Implications for Teaching

Based on our study, we offer the following recommendations to interpreter educators:

  • When interviewing prospective trainee interpreters, try to ascertain the exposure they may have had to natural and idiomatic language in both their L1 and L2; because most language appears to be learned in context (Searle, 2001), ask applicants whether they have worked with native English-speaking colleagues (the more so because student interpreters indicated that this was the context in which they had acquired most of their knowledge of idiomatic language).
  • Encourage student interpreters to arrange to have optimal exposure to idiomatic language during their studies; this could include interacting with native speakers of the students’ L2, reading widely, and watching programs that use a lot of idiomatic language—including scripted programs such as soap operas or other programs that use actors speaking the local dialect in informal situations.
  • Ensure that trainee interpreters learn the importance of initially recognizing idiomatic language to avoid “missing the plot.”
  • Encourage trainee interpreters to develop strategies for paraphrasing idiomatic language, taking into account context-related aspects including sociopragmatics and register.
  • Explore including natural idiomatic language in pedagogies, as this will encourage students’ awareness of such items and will enable students to reflect on appropriate sociopragmatic interpreting strategies. A good way of doing this might be to get students to watch clips of natural language use and ask them to write down and paraphrase five idioms. Following this, the students should be exposed to a practice dialogue (in either audio or audiovisual mode) that includes idiomatic expressions taken from the same video clip.

The study showed the real importance of interpreting students being familiarized with idiomatic language occurring in everyday interactions in their L2. A majority (91%) of student interpreters participating in this part of the study expressed a desire for more practice material based on “real-life” language use. Hence, the next step of this ongoing research project will involve including more audiovisual excerpts in interpreting exercises recorded for use in the computer laboratory. This will enable students to practice interpreting dialogues based on a corpus of idiomatic language in combination with the relevant audiovisual context.
The current study identified the widespread spoken use of a considerable number of phrasal verbs by professionals such as paramedics and police officers interacting with the public, the idiomatic nature of many of these, and the idiomatic nature of much natural language. In their study of phrasal verbs, Gardner and Davies (2007) recommended a reanalysis of the British National Corpus (BNC) across major registers (e.g., spoken vs. written) within subregisters. They felt that this might offer additional insights relative to English for special purposes (ESP) or English for academic purposes (EAP), content-based instruction, literature-based curricula, and other such pedagogic aims. In this way this article encompasses several threads taken from previous studies (Shlesinger, 1998; Nolan, 2005) by focusing on the interpreted message from the point of cross-cultural communication and sociopragmatic meaning, based on a corpus of audiovisual recordings showing the use of natural language in real life situations. We hope that the findings of the small study described here will inspire other researchers to also explore the use of corpora to benefit interpreting studies.


We would like to thank all students who consented to participate in the study.


Baker, M. (1992). In other words: A coursebook on translation. London, England: Routledge.
Baker, M. (1993). Corpus linguistics and translation studies: Implications and applications. In M. Baker, F. Gill, & E. Tognini-Bonelli (Eds.), Text and technology (pp. 233–250). Amsterdam, the Netherlands: John Benjamins.
Baker, M. (1995). Corpora in translation studies: An overview and some suggestions for future research. Target, 7(2),223–243.
Baker, M. (2011). In other words: A coursebook on translation (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
Bernardini, S. (2004).Corpus-aided language pedagogy for translator education. InK. Malmkjaer (Ed.), Translation in undergraduate degree programmes (pp. 91–112). Amsterdam, the Netherlands: John Benjamins.
Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. (1999). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Harlow, UK: Longman.
Brown, J. (2004). What do we mean by bias, Englishes, Englishes in testing, and English language proficiency? World Englishes, 23(2), 317–319.
Chomsky, N. (1980). Rules and representations. New York, NY: Colombia University Press.
Dastjerdi, H., & A’lipour, J. (2010). Teaching idiomatic expressions in context through focus on form techniques. English Language Teaching, 3(4), 71–74.
Durrant, P., & Schmitt, N. (2010). Adult learners’ retention of collocations from exposure. Second Language Research, 26(2), 163–188.
Ellis, N. C. (2001). Memory for language. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Cognition and second language instruction (pp. 33–68). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Fernando, C. (1996). Idioms and idiomaticity. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Fraser, B. (1970). Idioms within a transformational grammar. Foundations of Langiage, 6, 22-42.
Gardner, M., & Davies, D. (2007). Pointing out frequent phrasal verbs: A corpus-based analysis. TESOL Quarterly, 41(2), 339–259.
Gentile, A., Ozolins, U., & Vasilakakos, M. (1996). Liaison interpreting: A handbook. Carlton, South, Australia: Melbourne University Press.
González Davies, M. (2004). Multiple voices in the translation classroom. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: John Benjamins.
Grant, L. (2007). In a manner of speaking: Assessing frequent spoken figurative idioms to assist ESL/EFL teachers. System, 35(2), 169–181.
Grant, L., & Devlin, G. (1999). In other words! A dictionary of expressions used in New Zealand. Palmerston North, New Zealand: Dunmore Press.
Grant, L., & Nation, P. (2006). How many idioms are there in English? International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 151(1), 1–14.
Gumperz, J. (1981). The linguistic bases of communicative competence. In D. Tannen (Ed.), Analyzing discourse: Text and talk (pp. 323–334). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Gumperz, J. (1982). Discourse strategies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Hale, S. (2004). The discourse of court interpreting: Discourse practice of the law, the witness and the interpreter. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: John Benjamins.
Hale, S. (2007). Community interpreting. London, England: Palgrave MacMillan.
Hale, S. (2008) Controversies over the role of the court interpreter. In C. Valero-Garcés & A. Martin (Eds.), Crossing borders in community interpreting. Definitions and dilemmas, pp. 99-122. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: John Benjamins.
Horodecka, E. & Osadnik, W. (1992). A polysystem approach to translation of proverbs and idiomatic expressions from English to Polish.  Journal of Interpreters, 5(1), 25–50.
Hymes, D. (1997). Language in society. In C. Paulston & G. Tucker (Eds.), The early days of sociolinguistics: Memories and reflections (pp. 243–245). Dallas, TX: SIL International.
Koguri, K., Kume, M., & Iida, H. (1990). Illocutionary act based translation of dialogues. Presentation at the Third International Conference on Theoretical and Methodological Issues in Machine Translation of Natural Language, Austin, TX.
Kruger, A., Wallmach, K., & Munday, J. (2011). Corpus-based translation studies research and applications. London, England: Continuum International.
Mason, I. (1999). Community or dialogue interpreting. In I. Mason (Ed.), The Translator 5(2): Special Issue on Dialogue Interpreting.
Morris, R. (1999). The gum syndrome: Predicaments in court interpreting. Forensic Linguistics, 6, 6–29.
Nolan, J. (2005). Interpretation: Techniques and exercises. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Santiago, R.  & Barrick, L. (2007). In M. Metzger & E. Fleetwood, (Eds.), Translation, sociolinguistic, and consumer issues in interpreting: Studies in interpretation (pp. 3–44). Washington, DC,: Gallaudet University Press.
Searle, J. (2001). Situated literacies at work. International Journal of Educational Research, 37, 17–28.
Setton, R. (2011). Corpus-based interpreting studies (CIS): Overview and prospects. In A. Kruger, K. Wallmach, & J. Munday (Eds.), Corpus-based translation studies research and applications (pp. 33–75). London, England: Continuum International.
Shlesinger, M. (1998). Corpus-based interpreting studies. Meta 43(4), 486–493.
Trebits, A. (2009). The most frequent phrasal verbs in English language EU documents: A corpus-based analysis and its implications. Systems, 37, 470–481.
Valero-Garcés, C. (2003). Responding to communication needs: Current issues and challenges in community interpreting and translating in Spain. In L. Brunette, G. Bastin, I. Hemlin, & H. Clarke (Eds.), The Critical Link 3: Interpreters in the community (pp. 177–192). Amsterdam, the Netherlands: John Benjamins.
van der Merwe, T. (2001). Enkele gedagtes oor die vertaling van idiomatiese verbindings [Some thoughts on the translation of idiomatic language use]. South African Linguistics and Applied Linguistics Studies, 19(1–2), 67–82.
Wray, A. (2000). Formulaic sequences in second language teaching: Principles and practice. Applied Linguistics, 21(4), 463–489.