A version of this article was originally published on November 5, 2015. It has since been updated.
Idioms That Come in Handy
A few expressions with the word “hand” are very common in English. Maybe the idioms “on hand” and “at hand” come to mind for you.
But what do you if you work with words every day and come across an idiom that you’re unfamiliar with?
One of the challenges that all translators face is how best to convey the meaning of a source text in their native language. (Remember that the majority of professional translators work only from a second language into their native language.)
Sounds easy, right? If a translator only has to put something into her native tongue, then it should be a piece of cake. The word or phrase should come to her automatically, as naturally as if she were speaking to a friend.
Well, not exactly. Take a recent translation that we did for a French client. The source text used the phrase avoir [qqch] sous la main, a common French idiom that means “to have [something] on hand” (or “at hand” if you prefer).
This got me thinking.
Why do we say “on hand” and “at hand”? Do they have identical meanings? And if so, couldn’t we get rid of one or the other?
Translators are interested in meaning, of course. But they’re also interested in conventions of usage.
The translator, then, has the task of deciding which is preferable, if one is in fact preferable. Merriam-Webster gives the following definitions for “at hand” and “on hand”:
1: near in time or place; within reach (use whatever ingredients are at hand)
2: currently receiving or deserving attention (the business at hand)
1: in present possession or readily available (kept supplies on hand)
2: about to appear; pending
3: in attendance; present
A translator might reasonably argue that the first definition for “at hand” is similar to the first definition of “on hand.” After all, doesn’t “within reach” basically mean “readily available”?
As it happens, the subject of the French source text was pencils, and the translator ended up (in my opinion, correctly) choosing “on hand” instead of “at hand,” though a preference for the latter would not have negatively affected the quality of the translation in any significant way.
The translated sentence reads as follows: He concluded that existing software hasn’t yet reached the level of maturity necessary to replace the tools [pencils] that we’ve always had on hand…
Corpus Linguistics to the Rescue
Translators aren’t just interested in meaning, though. They’re interested in conventions.
Enter Google’s Ngram viewer, a tool that lets anyone see how often a given word or phrase is used.
We can compare the frequency of each idiom over time in Google’s “American English” corpus, a massive trove of two centuries of text. At the very least, we can see which idiom (“on hand” and “in hand”) is more popular. (Notice I didn’t say “better.”)
Now let’s add a third variable: “to hand,” the British version of “on hand” (or “at hand”). (Had we been translating for our French client into British English, the translator would likely have chosen “to hand” for sous la main.)
As you can see, the idiom “have it to hand” (which probably sounds strange to your ears if you’re American) is the least used of the three.
But watch what happens when we use Google’s “British English” corpus instead:
Remarkable, isn’t it? An idiom that actually sounds not just strange but wrong to my ears is—at the moment, anyway—used more often than the other two.
Two of the three expressions with the word “hand” seem right to me. Why? They form part of my idiolect.
In addition to dictionaries and cool tools such as Google’s Ngram viewer, translators rely on their “nativeness” to produce translations. That nativeness is not infallible, of course. But it goes a long way towards producing a text that can be understood by native speakers of the same language.
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