Tips and Tricks for Translating and Interpreting Colloquial Expressions in Regional Language

Languages are constantly evolving, changing, and morphing, sometimes so dramatically that a variety used in one community becomes unrecognizable to outsiders. Even when speakers of different varieties of a single language can communicate effectively, one can often detect a phonetic, lexical, or even syntactical variation between them. This can pose a problem for translators and interpreters, since variation implies choices, and a wrong decision could lead to an incorrect language equivalent. Keeping this in mind, how can translators and interpreters avoid making mistakes when working with colloquial expressions in regional varieties of a language?

To begin, it is important that the translator or interpreter have an extensive background in the specific regional varieties of both the language of origin and the target language. For example, if an interpreter is working with a client from Switzerland, he or she should be very familiar with Swiss French and the variations it presents. Colloquial expressions are, of course, specific to the regions in which they are uttered and can often have different meanings in different locations. Thus, it is critical to recognize that one word or phrase does not necessarily have a single meaning but rather a range of potential translations.

What should you do, then, when you are presented with colloquial expressions during your work as a translator or interpreter? The most important questions to remember are:

  1. Where is the client from? Always pay attention to the specific region where your client is from and be sure to understand the variations of the language in that region, especially if they differ from those of the “standard” variety. For example, an interpreter familiar with Parisian French, oftentimes considered “International French” or “Standard French”, would interpret the word “déjeuner” as “lunch”, whereas a native to Switzerland would interpret the same word as “breakfast”.
  2. What is the regional variety of the target language? Similarly, an interpreter must be very familiar with the specific regional variety of the target language. Using the former example, you might interpret the Parisian French word “déjeuner” as “lunch” or as “dinner”, depending on the English-speaking region in which the target audience lives.
  3. What is the register of the text? A common suggestion to translators and interpreters is to avoid colloquial expressions and slang in their work. Thus, know the acceptable register of the target text and be sure to communicate with your client in order to clearly identify the appropriateness of colloquial expressions in the final translation.

The most important rule you should always ask yourself is, “What do these words mean to my client?” This is why when you are presented with an unknown word or expression, it is often suggested that the translator or interpreter attempt to seek clarification from his or her client whenever possible. Be careful when improvising; taking liberties with your work without consulting your client can do more harm than good.

Do you have thoughts on translating or interpreting colloquial expressions? We’d love to read your thoughts in the comments!



Nisar, the dynamic force behind Translation Excellence, stands tall as its founder and CEO. This isn’t just any company—it’s a global heavyweight in boutique language services. Hailing from the vibrant city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Nisar brought his passion and expertise to the U.S. shores in 2001. In the realm of languages, he’s a titan. With 19 years under his belt, he’s worn hats from a linguist and instructor to a cultural bridge-builder and curriculum craftsman.

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