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Chancing Your Arm

Chancing Your Arm

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Idioms are constantly causing issues within the world of translation. Do you know the meaning of the expression “chancing your arm”? Let me introduce you to an idiom which for me sums up the value of taking measured risks in life: chancing your arm. As Gerald FitzGerald demonstrates in this little tale, when you learn to read the situation, what seems like a big risk is well worth the reward of victory.

Background

In the fifteenth century there were two Anglo-Irish families, the Butlers and the FitzGeralds, who were constantly fighting each other for territory and the right to rule. In 1477 Gerald FitzGerald became Lord Deputy at Dublin Castle, making him one of the most influential men in the land. This stirred up even more angst and rivalry between these warring factions, and it all came to a head in a pitched battle in 1492, just outside of Dublin. Some senior members of the Butler family took refuge in the Chapter House of St Patrick’s Cathedral, claiming sanctuary and calling for a ceasefire. Gerald stood outside and promised that if they came out, he would grant them safety and free passage in return for their surrender.

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The door of Reconciliation – St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin

Risk Taker

So great was the feud that they didn’t believe his words, so in a last ditch effort to show good faith and end the fighting, Gerald demonstrated an act of extreme courage. How would you attempt to convey this as a translation into your own native language? He took an axe and smashed a hole through the door, just wide enough for his arm. He then stuck his whole arm through so he and the Butlers could shake hands on the deal, giving the Butlers the opportunity to chop it off – if they had wanted to. Hence the expression ‘chancing your arm’ became part of the English language.

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