It's time to chew the elephant!

Post date: Feb 12, 2013 4:6:14 PM

I came across this phrase recently on a website about facilities management (FM) for public-sector bodies. It was used as if it was entirely self-explanatory. I had to check with a nearby HR Director (my wife) to find out what it meant. Apparently it is used to refer to a problem that is so large that it can only be dealt with in small chunks (in other words, instead of eating the elephant in one go, we have to chew on it bit by bit, so that it is eaten away gradually). I don't believe it's a particularly clear image; but it made me laugh.

It can be difficult for translators and interpreters to render a phrase like this clearly in the target language. Just because a term or expression is in current use, that doesn't mean it's clear, or helpful, or appropriate for the context. So we need to exercise a degree of caution before peppering our target text or speech with references to "chewing the elephant". Even ostensibly simple images (such as the ubiquitous "the elephant in the room", to continue with the pachyderm theme) have be used carefully, to make sure they are appropriate and accurate.

As a metaphor, however, "chewing the elephant" could perhaps be usefully applied to the current situation in the translation/interpreting sector: if we want to improve our pay, our conditions, our profile and our standing, we have to try and make progress in small chunks. One way is to stop working for rock-bottom rates. I was in contact recently with a perfectly capable translator who admitted charging a rate that was too low for a book translation. The justification was that the person concerned wanted the work, and needed the experience.

Let's imagine that we are going to chew the elephant chunk by chunk: raising translation/interpreting rates away from an absurd basement level could represent, for example, nibbling on the elephant's toenails (a disgusting thought, I admit, but expressive of the difficulty of the task!). Let's get our teeth around that bit of the elephant first, and see where it takes us.