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Of swords and phrases

Idiomatic phrases are popular stylistic devices, and used properly, they can enhance a text significantly.

Of course, the trick is to use them correctly and not mix them up, so neither the message nor the readers get confused.

There are several phrases involving swords, for example:

  • something is a two-edged or double-edged sword, meaning that it is both good and bad;
  • the pen is (supposedly) mightier than the sword, ascribing more power to words than actual fights;
  • swords can be beaten into plowshares, portending an end to strife and war;
  • Damocles’ sword hangs over one’s head, indicating imminent danger or trouble;
  • if you draw your sword and throw away the scabbard, you approach a conflict, including actual military ones, with no intention of resolving it peacefully;
  • and when you fall on your sword, you accept responsibility for a mistake.

Translating these is not always easy. Sometimes, there are the same or similar enough equivalents in other languages, but often the best you can do is to describe what they mean or say it in a less figurative, drier, and more boring way.

But what do you do when the author of a text mixes his metaphors, and it is not entirely clear what he is trying to say? And if you can’t ask whether that was a mistake or on purpose?

This happened in an exam text, no less, with “a double-edged sword hanging over” someone.

The poor examination candidates of course could not contact the author, so they had to solve this problem somehow (and within the prescribed time).

Had I been in their shoes, I would have tried to figure out what the author might have intended to say, using first only one and then only the other idiom in the sentence and seeing how that sentence then fit into the rest of the text.
If both versions make sense on their own, the next step would be to either see if there is a way to combine them so that the result in the target language also makes sense, or, if that doesn’t work, to see which of the two options makes more sense in the overall context.

Maybe the best option would have been to not use this text for an exam, or at least to adapt it so this mixed metaphor wasn’t in it. On the other hand, this could also be seen as an opportunity for the candidates to show both their translation skills and their problem-solving skills. So maybe it was chosen or left as is on purpose – like the author might have mixed his metaphors on purpose, too.

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