Tackling Idiomatic Expressions in Malay: A Translator’s Guide

The Malay language is made more flowery and beautiful through the use of idioms. However, Malay idioms are often difficult to translate due to sound, lexis, grammar, and style.

In addition, the Malay language does not have different types of tenses to indicate past, present, or future time, unlike the English language. And what is more, the majority of the Malay lexis through the use of idioms has a religious sense to it, which can make it more difficult to translate.

In this article, we explore common idiomatic expressions in the Malay language, focus on a few of the challenges involved in translating Malay idioms, emphasize a few strong strategies for translating them, and discuss the importance of understanding the cultural context in such translations.

Let’s get started.

Common idiomatic expressions in the Malay language

Just like many languages use this part of speech, Malay idioms are used to convey cultural nuances and intended messages through the use of language as a form of storytelling. Below, we outline a few of the more frequently used Malay idioms to give you an idea of how the language is used to convey meaning.

  • Malay idiom: Anak Harimau Di Dalam Hutan, Tetap Harimau Juga
  • English meaning: A tiger cub in the jungle is still a tiger.
  • Explanation: It’s when a person who has grown up in difficult circumstances still possesses the qualities and characteristics of their background or upbringing. In essence, it means that people’s past deeds will always show up in their personality. It tells us that you will always bring what you learned with you no matter what your future may be.
  • Malay idiom: Air Tidak Boleh Dibohongi
  • English meaning: Water cannot be lied to.
  • Explanation: It describes a situation where the truth is already public knowledge and cannot be hidden anymore.
  • Malay idiom: Baju Tidak Sebulu Dada
  • English meaning: The shirt is not as long as the chest.
  • Explanation: It expresses how material possessions and wealth will never bring true happiness and comfort because material wealth can be fleeting.
  • Malay idiom: Jangan Menyalahkan Kayu, Bila Botol Pecah
  • English meaning: Don’t blame the wood when the bottle breaks.
  • Explanation: It is used as a teaching device, telling people not to blame innocent parties for the consequences of their own actions.
  • Malay idiom: Hendak Seribu Daya, Tak Hendak Seribu Dalih
  • English meaning: If you want something, you have the force of a thousand; if you don’t want it, you give excuses for a thousand.
  • Explanation: If you are willing, you can do a thousand things to achieve your goal; If you are unwilling, you can come up with a thousand excuses.
  • Malay idiom: Sambil Menyelam Minum Air
  • English meaning: While diving, drink water.
  • Explanation: It is the Malay equivalent of killing two birds with one stone.
  • Malay idiom: Mati Semut Kerana Gula
  • English meaning: Ants die because of sugar.
  • Explanation: It is used in a situation when someone falls victim to an easy way out.
  • Malay idiom: Sudah Jatuh Ditimpa Tangga
  • English meaning: After falling, the ladder falls on you.
  • Explanation: It is when someone is going through bad luck or hard times in succession; in other words, when it rains it pours.
  • Malay idiom: Lembu Punya Susu, Sapi Dapat Nama
  • English meaning: The milk belongs to the cow, but the bull cow gets the name.
  • Explanation: If you have a boss or a coworker who always takes credit for your work. In other words, to steal one’s thunder.
  • Malay idiom: Harimau Mati Meninggalkan Belang, Manusia Mati Meninggalkan Nama
  • English meaning: Tigers die and leave their stripes, but humans die leaving their names.
  • Explanation: A good person dies, forever leaving a good impression while a bad person leaves a bad name forever.
  • Malay idiom: Sepandai-Pandai Tupai Melompat, Akhirnya Jatuh Ke Tanah Juga
  • English meaning: No matter how high the squirrel jumps, it will eventually fall onto the ground.
  • Explanation: This is to remind everyone that no matter how hard you are running away from your misdeeds and wrongdoings, one day people will find out about them.
  • Malay idiom: Tanam Lalang Tak Akan Tumbuh Padi
  • English meaning: If you plant grass, you won’t get rice.
  • Explanation: All misdeeds will receive retributions, or karma never loses.
  • Malay idiom: Malu Bertanya Sesat Jalan, Malu Berkayuh Perahu Hanyut
  • English meaning: If you’re too shy to ask you will get lost; if you refuse to paddle, your boat will drift away.
  • Explanation: If you do not try something, it will be difficult to achieve something, and if you are reluctant or shy to ask your superior or teacher, you are bound to make a mistake.
  • Malay idiom: Alang-Alang Menyeluk Pekasam Biar Ke Pangkal Lengan
  • English meaning: If you reach into the fermented fish jar, you should just put your whole arm in.
  • Explanation: You should be determined to finish what you have started successfully, not half-heartedly.
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Challenges in translating Malay idioms

Translating Malay idioms effectively comes with a number of challenges. Among these include:
Malay idioms

  • Culture-specific concepts (with no equivalent in the target language)
  • The source language word is semantically complex
  • The source language and target language have distinctions in meaning
  • The target language lacks a specific term
  • Differences in physical or interpersonal perspectives
  • Differences in expressive meaning
  • Differences in form
  • Differences in frequency and purpose of using specific forms
  • The use of loan words in the source text
  • And others.

Strategies for translating Malay idioms effectively

There are several strategies to translate Malay idioms more effectively. These strategies include:

  • Translation by a more general word (superordinate)
  • Translation by a more neutral/less expressive word
  • Translation by cultural substitution
  • Translation using a loan word or loan word plus an explanation
  • Translation by paraphrasing using a related word
  • Translation by paraphrasing using unrelated words
  • Translation by omission
  • Translation by illustration

The importance of cultural context in conveying intended meaning

Although there may be many challenges in translating Malay idioms, there are also several highly effective strategies for effective translation.

One of the most important aspects that should not be overlooked when carrying out a translation of Malay idioms is to have a deep understanding of the cultural context in conveying the intended meaning.

For this reason, if you need translations from Malay to English or English to Malay, you need a native speaker who is deeply familiar with the nuances of the language and culture to bring forth a more accurate and more descriptive translation with ease.