A blanket of snow

No, we don’t have one here yet, but the Olympic Mountains clearly have a new one.  Without revealing too much about the mysterious twists and turns of my thought processes, this morning I was lying in bed thinking about the wedding gift I gave my cousin in September–a blanket–and the weather, which is moving headlong towards winter.  This lead to the expression “a blanket of snow” popping into my head as a good example of a problematic expression to render in another language.  The expression, a metaphor, is thoroughly integrated into American English, and actually means a heavy layer of snow, as opposed to a dusting of snow, which means a light layer.

This phrase can really illustrate the pitfalls of literal translation and other rendering errors.  First of all, there’s the metaphor.  It may not be integrated into the target language, and in fact another metaphor may exist in its place:  a cloak of snow, for example.  Then there’s the grammatical structure.  If it’s literally translated, or incorrectly understood, does it result in a possessive, or origin, or something else.  The rendering would be the equivalent of “snow’s blanket,” or “the blanket from snow.”  Finally, there are the potential cultural issues.  What if the culture of the target language has little or no familiarity with blankets or snow?  Then we have, perhaps, something as extreme as “a heavy covering, often used for sleeping made of frozen white precipitation.”

Do I have a solution for this?  Fortunately for me, I don’t work in a language that presents this particular problem.  What I do have to do is to encourage students to think about the problem and to resolve it in the best way possible in their working language.

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