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Some time ago I have a read a very famous book of Allen I. Holub "Enough rope to shoot yourself in the foot" (this book on openlibrary.org). I have read it in Russian and the book was titled with exact, i.e. word-by-word translation of the original English title. And, as you can imagine, it was totally nonsensical. Then I became interested in the meaning of the original title.

I found out that this is a nice play of two idioms:

give somebody enough rope (to hang themselves) meaning to allow someone to do what they want to, knowing that they will probably fail or get into trouble

to shoot yourself in the foot meaning you do something that damages your ambition, career, etc.

I started to think about better translation, but the question is: can you think of a short phrase in English without idioms to keep the same meaning? It would be also interesting if there are proverbs or set expressions with the same idea.

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A set expression would be an idiom, which you forbad. –  tchrist Feb 27 '13 at 22:27
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Idioms are hard enough to translate as it is, let alone trying to translate ones that are also mixed metaphors. –  Robusto Feb 27 '13 at 22:27
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What @Mynamite said. In the end, that title doesn't really "mean" much at all - it's just a quirky catchy title. A book that offered to teach you enough to do things wrong, but not enough to do them right probably wouldn't sell. –  FumbleFingers Feb 28 '13 at 4:31
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If your goal is to translate the phrase in a way that gives nice images and metaphors then I would look around for existing Russian expressions with similar meaning (or anything sarcastic and loosely related) and try to combine some or play variants on it, for example, by substituting some words from the computer industry. I can't provide a great example, since I don't speak Russian, but one thing that also works in English: "Optimize your Russian Roulette with six bullets." (Meaning that all six holds are filled, you will surely die.) This title would be especially funny if the book had six m –  Robert Jack Will Jul 20 '13 at 14:02
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Your definition of 'give somebody enough rope' is not quite right. It means to not intervene when someone is doing something wrong, so as to let them really screw up before you challenge them. That way, you'll be on solid ground when you call them to account. –  Carl Smith Jul 20 '13 at 14:19
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4 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Holub employs a mixed metaphor (as Robusto suggested) and the descriptions of the book allude to at least one other expression, which is "just enough to be dangerous" (as in "I/You/They know just enough to be dangerous.").

As with most metaphors, they are designed to evoke a mental image of equivalence. In this case, Holub appears to be addressing some particular aspects of computer programming where he believes that programmers are knowledgeable enough (enough rope) to be dangerous (shoot foot) and therefore they are "a danger" to the programming world.

Using a mixed metaphor is often done for humorous effect, which appears to be Holub's intent here. As this review states "Holub manages to make a serious subject refreshingly readable by sprinkling the text with humor and insight."

If a mixed metaphor like this were to have a commonly used substitute, the substitue would probably lose the full effect of the metaphor. But you might say simply use "Programmers know just enough to be dangerous" (which isn't idiomatic, but requires context), which I already mentioned. Stated alone, it doesn't evoke the same image as a hanging and an unintended discharge of a weapon.

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Translation suggested is: "sufficent freedom of action to fail" or "sufficent independence to fail."

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Or maybe "too much freedom to get into trouble"? –  pmod Feb 28 '13 at 20:58
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pmod has a good idea, but I think "enough freedom to get into trouble" better expresses the original quotation. –  Wayne Johnston Mar 2 '13 at 2:46
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It’s a great book, but you should know that Holub has transitioned away from C++, first to Java, and I think now past that into scripting. Anyway, this book (as you know) is about advanced techniques in C and C++. The book is intended for experienced programmers. So the title is also a warning that newbies need not apply.

I can't imagine how this play on two metaphors translates into any language that doesn't have those two metaphors already.

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It's possible I'm reading a little too much into this. However, there is one level where this could be easier to translate, if you take the implication that the risks are not understood by the amateur.

In other words, there is a possibility to fail in some spectacular fashion entirely unrelated to the assumed dangers, to the amateur that misunderstands the fundamental nature of the tool.

Perhaps, search for an equivalent set of metaphors in Russian that could be co-opted in a similar way.

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