Translation is an activity comprising the interpretation of the meaning of a text in one language—the source text—and the production of a new, equivalent text in another language—called the target text, or the translation.

Traditionally, translation has been a human activity, although attempts have been made to automate and computerise the translation of natural language texts—machine translation—or to use computers as an aid to translation—computer-assisted translation.

The goal of translation is to establish a relationship of equivalence between the source and the target texts (that is to say to ensure that both texts communicate the same message), while taking into account a number of constraints. These constraints include context, the rules of grammar of the source language, its writing conventions, its idioms and the like.


Translation vs. interpreting

A distinction is made between translation, which consists of transferring ideas expressed in writing from one language to another, from interpreting, which consists of transferring ideas expressed orally, or by the use of gestures (as in the case of sign language), from one language to another.

Although interpreting can be considered a subcategory of translation as far as the analysis of the processes involved is concerned (translation studies), in practice the talents required for these two activities are quite different.

Translation process

The translation process, whether it be for translation or interpreting, can be described simply as:

  1. Decoding the meaning of the source text, and
  2. Re-encoding this meaning in the target language.

To decode the meaning of a text the translator must first identify its component "translation units", that is to say the segments of the text to be treated as a cognitive unit. A translation unit may be a word, a phrase or even one or more sentences.

Behind this seemingly simple procedure lies a complex cognitive operation. To decode the complete meaning of the source text, the translator must consciously and methodically interpret and analyse all its features. This process requires thorough knowledge of the grammar, semantics, syntax, idioms and the like of the source language, as well as the culture of its speakers.

The translator needs the same in-depth knowledge to re-encode the meaning in the target language. In fact, often translators' knowledge of the target language is more important, and needs to be deeper, than their knowledge of the source language. For this reason, most translators translate into a language of which they are native speakers.

In addition, knowledge of the subject matter being discussed is essential.

In recent years studies in cognitive linguistics have been able to provide valuable insights into the cognitive process of translation.

Measuring success in translation

As the goal of translation is to ensure that the source and the target texts communicate the same message while taking into account the various constraints placed on the translator, a successful translation can be judged by two criteria:

  1. Faithfulness, also called fidelity, which is the extent to which the translation accurately renders the meaning of the source text, without adding to it or subtracting from it, and without intensifying or weakening any part of the meaning; and
  2. Transparency, which is the extent to which the translation appears to a native speaker of the target language to have originally been written in that language, and conforms to the language's grammatical, syntactic and idiomatic conventions.

A translation meeting the first criterion is said to be a "faithful translation"; a translation meeting the second criterion is said to be an "idiomatic translation".

The criteria used to judge the faithfulness of a translation vary according to the subject, the precision of the original contents, the type, function and use of the text, its literary qualities, its social or historical context, and so forth.

The criteria for judging the transparency of a translation would appear more straightforward: an unidiomatic translation "sounds" wrong, and in the extreme case of word-for-word translations generated by many machine translation systems, often result in patent nonsense.

Nevertheless, in certain contexts a translator may knowingly strive to produce a literal translation. For example, literary translators and translators of religious works often adhere to the source text as much as possible. To do this they deliberately "stretch" the boundaries of the target language to produce an unidiomatic text. Likewise, a literary translator may wish to adopt words or expressions from the source language to provide "local colour" in the translation.

The concepts of fidelity and transparency are looked at differently in recent translation theories. The idea that acceptable translations can be as creative and original as their source text is gaining momentum in some quarters.

The concepts of fidelity and transparency remain strong in Western traditions, however. They are not necessarily as prevalent in non-Western traditions. For example, the Indian epic Ramayana has numerous versions in many Indian languages and the stories in each are different from one another. If one looks into the words used for translation in Indian (either Aryan or Dravidian) languages, the freedom given to the translators is evident.

Translation problems

General problems

Translation is inherently a difficult activity. Translators can face additional problems which make the process even more difficult, such as:

  • Problems with the source text:
    • Changes made to the text during the translation process
    • Illegible text
    • Misspelt text
    • Incomplete text
    • Poorly written text
    • Missing references in the text (e.g. the translator is to translate captions to missing photos)
  • Language problems
  • Other
    • Rhymes, puns and poetic meters.
    • Highly specific cultural references

The problem of "untranslatability"

See also full article: Untranslatability .

The question of whether particular words are untranslatable is often debated, with lists of "untranslatable" words being produced from time to time.

These lists often include words such as saudade, a Portuguese word (also used in Spanish) as an example of an "untranslatable". It translates quite neatly however as "sorrowful longing", but does have some nuances that are hard to include in a translation; for instance, it is a positive-valued concept, a subtlety which is not clear in this basic translation. Some words are hard to translate only if one wishes to remain in the same grammatical category. For example, it is hard to find a noun corresponding to the Russian почемучка (pochemuchka) or the Yiddish שלימזל (shlimazl), but the English adjectives "inquisitive" and "jinxed" correspond just fine.

Linguists are naturally enthusiastic about obscure words with local flavour, and are wont to declare them "untranslatable", but in reality these incredibly culture-laden terms are the easiest of all to translate, even more so than universal concepts such as "mother". This is because it is standard practice to translate these words by the same word in the other language, borrowing it for the first time if necessary. For example, an English version of a menu in a French restaurant would rarely translate pt de foie gras as "fat liver paste", although this is a good description. Instead, the accepted translation is simply pt de foie gras, or, at most, foie gras pt. In some cases, only transcription is required: Japanese 山葵 translates into English as wasabi. A short description or parallel with a familiar concept is also often acceptable: わさび may also be translated as "Japanese horseradish" or "Japanese mustard".

The more obscure and specific to a culture the term is, the simpler it is to translate. For example, the name of an insignificant settlement such as Euroa in Australia is automatically just "Euroa" in every language in the world that uses the Roman alphabet, whilst it takes some knowledge to be aware that Saragossa is Zaragoza, Saragosse, etc. or that China is 中国, Cina, Chine, and so forth.

The problem of common words

The words that are truly difficult to translate are often the small, common words. For example, the verb "to get" in all its various uses covers nearly seven columns of the most recent version of the Robert-Collins French-English dictionary. The same is true for most apparently simple, common words, such as "go" (seven columns), "come" (four and a half columns), and so forth.

Cultural aspects can complicate translation. Consider the example of a word like "bread". At first glance, it is a very simple word, referring in everyday use to just one thing, with obvious translations in other languages. But ask people from England, France or China to describe or draw "bread", du pain or 包 (bāo), and they will describe different things, based on their individual cultures.

Differing levels of precision inherent in a language also play a role. What does "there" mean? Even discounting idiomatic uses such as "there, there, don't cry", we can be confronted by several possibilities. If something is "there" but not very far away, a Spaniard will say ah; if it is further away he or she will say all, unless there are connotations of "near there", "over yonder" or "on that side", in which case the word is likely to be all. Conversely, in colloquial French, all three "there" concepts plus the concept of "here" all tend to be expressed with the word l.

Expressions may also exist in one language which refer to concepts that don't exist in another language. For example, the French "tutoyer"' and "vouvoyer" would both be translated into English as "to address as 'you'", since the singular informal second person pronoun is archaic in English.

The problem often lies in failure to distinguish between translation and glossing. Glossing is what a glossary does: give a short (usually one-word) equivalent for each term. Translation, as explained above, is decoding meaning and intent at the text level (not the word level or even sentence level) and then re-encoding them in a target language. Words like saudade and שלימזל are hard to "gloss" into a single other word, but given two or more words they can be perfectly adequately "translated". Similarly, depending on the context, the meaning of the French word "tutoyer", or Spanish "tutear", could be translated as "to be on first name terms with". "Bread" has perhaps a better claim to being untranslatable, since even if we resort to saying "French bread", "Chinese bread", "Algerian bread", etc. we are relying on our audience knowing what these are like.

Specialised types of translation

Any type of written text can be a candidate for translation, however, the translation industry is often categorised by a number of areas of specialisation. Each specialisation has its own challenges and difficulties. An incomplete list of these specialised types of translation includes:

Administrative translation

The translation of administrative texts.

Commercial translation

The translation of commercial (business) texts.

Computer translation

The translation of computer programs and related documents (manuals, help files, web sites.)

The notion of localisation, that is the adaptation of the translation to the target language and culture, is gaining prevalence in this area of specialisation.

(Note that the term "computer translation" is sometimes used to refer to the practice of machine translation, using computers to automatically translate texts.)

Economic translation

The translation of texts in the fields of economics.

Financial translation

The translation of texts of a financial nature.

General translation

The translation of "general" texts. In practice, few texts are really "general"; most fall into a specialisation but are not seen as such.

Legal translation

See also full article: Legal translation.

The translation of legal documents (laws, contracts, treaties, etc.).

A skilled legal translator is normally as adept at the law (often with in-depth legal training) as with translation, since inaccuracies in legal translations can have serious results.

(One example of problematic translation is the Treaty of Waitangi, where the English and Maori versions differ in certain important areas.)

Sometimes, to prevent such problems, one language will be declared authoritative, with the translations not being considered legally binding, although in many cases this is not possible, as one party does not want to be seen as subservient to the other.

Literary translation

The translation of literary works (novels, short stories, plays, poems, etc.)

If the translation of non-literary works is regarded as a skill, the translation of fiction and poetry is much more of an art. In multilingual countries such as Canada, translation is often considered a literary pursuit in its own right. Figures such as Sheila Fischman, Robert Dickson and Linda Gaboriau are notable in Canadian literature specifically as translators, and the Governor General's Awards present prizes for the year's best English-to-French and French-to-English literary translations with the same standing as more conventional literary awards.

Writers such as Vladimir Nabokov have also made a name for themselves as literary translators.

Many consider poetry the most difficult genre to translate, given the difficulty in rendering both the form and the content in the target language. In 1974 the American poet James Merrill wrote a poem, "Lost in Translation," which in part explores this subject. This question was also explored in Douglas Hofstadter's 1997 book, Le Ton beau de Marot.

Medical translation

The translation of works of a medical nature.

Like pharmaceutical translation, medical translation is specialisation where a mistranslation can have grave consequences.

Pedagogical translation

Translation practised as a means of learning a second language.

Pedagogical translation is used to enrich (and to assess) the student's vocabulary in the second language, to help assimilate new syntactic structures and to verify the student's understanding. Unlike other types of translation, pedagogical translation takes place in the student's native (or dominant) language as well as the second language. That is to say that the student will translate both to and from the second language. Another difference between this mode of translation and other modes is that the goal is often literal translation of phrases taken out of context, and of text fragments, which may be completed fabricated for the purposes of the exercise.

Pedagogical translation should not be confused with scholarly translation.

Pharmaceutical translation

The translation of works in the pharmaceutical industry.

Like medical translation, pharmaceutical translation is specialisation where a mistranslation can have grave consequences.

Scientific translation

The translation of scientific texts.

Scholarly translation

The translation of specialised texts written in an academic environment.

Scholarly translation should not be confused with pedagogical translation.

Technical translation

The translation of technical texts (manuals, instructions, etc.).

More specifically, texts that contain a high amount of jargon, for example words or expressions that are used (almost) only within a specific field, or that describe that field in a great deal of detail.


Translation of religious texts

The translation of religious works has played an important role in world history. For instance the Buddhist monks who translated the Indian sutras into the Chinese language would often skew the translation to better adapt to China's very different culture. Thus notions such as filial piety were stressed.

The translation of the Christian Bible has long been of great import.

St. Jerome, the patron saint of translation, is still considered one of the greatest translators in history for his work on translating the Bible into Latin. The Catholic Church used this translation (known as the Vulgate) for centuries, but even his translation met much controversy when it was released.

The Protestant Reformation saw the translation of the Bible into the local languages of Europe, an act condemned by the Catholic Church and one that had a great impact on the split between Protestantism and Catholicism.

Martin Luther's Bible in German and the King James Bible in English had immense impacts on the religion, culture, and language of those countries.

See also: Bible translations

Trends in translation

Machine translation

See also full article: Machine translation.

Machine translation (MT) is a form of translation where a computer program analyses the source text and produces a target text without human intervention.

In recent years machine translation, a major goal of natural language processing, has met with limited success. Most machine translation is such involves some human intervention, as it requires a pre-editing and a post-editing phase. Note that in machine translation, the translator supports the machine.

Tools available on the Internet, such as Alta Vista's Babel Fish, and low-cost translation programs, have brought machine translation technologies to a large public. These tools produce what is called a "gisting translation"—a rough translation that gives the "gist" of the source text, but is not otherwise usable.

However, in fields with highly limited ranges of vocabulary and simple sentence structure, for example weather reports, machine translation can deliver useful results.

Computer-assisted translation

See also full article: Computer-assisted translation.

Computer-assisted translation (CAT), also called computer-aided translation, is a form of translation where a human translator creates a target text with the assistance of a computer program. Note that in computer-assisted translation, the machine supports the translator.

Computer-assisted translation can be seen to include standard dictionary and grammar software; however, the term is normally used to refer to a range of specialised programs available for the translator.

For example, translation memory (TM) programs store and align previously translated source texts and their equivalent target texts in a database.

They split the source text into manageable units known as "segments." Typically, each sentence of the source text is considered a segment, although texts are sometimes segmented into paragraphs instead of sentences. As the translator works through a document, the translation memory displays a source segment and a previous translation for re-use, if such a previous translation exists, or prompts the translator to enter a new translation. After the translation for a segment is completed, the program stores the new translation and moves onto the next segment. The translation memory, in principle, is a simple database with a pair of entries for each segment: an entry for the source segment and the corresponding entry for the segment translation provided by the translator.

Cultural translation

This is a new area of interest in the field of translation studies. Cultural translation is a concept used in cultural studies to denote the process of transformation, linguistic or otherwise, in a given culture. The concept uses linguistic translation as a tool or metaphor in analysing the nature of transformation in cultures. For example, ethnography is considered a translated narrative of an abstract living culture.

Criticism of translation

From time to time, criticism can be made of the act of translation. One such criticism is the lack of "coherence" in translation. The criticism can be stated as follows. If a story originally written in English, and taking place in an English speaking country, is translated into French, for example, it can lose its logic because of sentences like "Do you speak English?" The critic asks what the translation should be. "Parlez-vous anglais?" or "Parlez-vous franais?". According to this criticism, the answer will be self-contradictory. If the answer to the question were yes, for the first translation this would mean something like, "Yes I speak a language you are not using and that is absolutely irrelevant". For the second translation it would mean "Yes, this is an English speaking country, and yet everyone, including myself, is speaking French." The gist of this criticism that one of the main rules in translation is to "keep the context", and that the language of the document is itself the heart of the context.

This criticism can be rebutted in several ways. First, this kind of situation arises rarely in real-world translations. When it does, the translator can use techniques to avoid the problem by, for example, translating "Do you speak English?" by "Do you speak my language?" or "Do you understand what I say?" Another point is that a French-speaking reader who is reading a book written by, say, Agatha Christie describing a murder in an English stately home, most likely realises that the characters were speaking English in the original.

Another criticism is of a more philosophical nature. It claims that translation can be described as writing what you have read in another language. The question arises whether the reader can know whether the translator understands the original author perfectly. While this is the translator's job, it is the author who is praised for the work; but can a translation of Asimov be considered as Asimov's work? According to this criticism, translation could even be seen as "legal plagiarism”. Translations can be quite different from the original: for instance, the name of Zaphod Beeblebrox in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams was translated into French Jean Bonnefoiy as Zapi Bibici. While this is not a huge difference, it is there. Adams may not have been completely happy with this change, and it is by a series of such small changes that a translation becomes an adaptation, according to this criticism.

This is a long-time complaint of translation, that is expressed in the Italian expression Traduttore, traditore—every translation is a betrayal. On the other hand, rarely is a work of fiction translated without a negotiation as to rights, and many an author will be happy to put aside reservations about the names of characters for the opportunity to increase his readership.

See also


  • Nimrod's Sin: Treason and Translation in a Multilingual World edited by Norman Simms (1983).
  • Translation: agent of communication guest-edited by Marilyn Gaddis Rose (a special issue of Pacific Moana Quarterly, 5:1) (1980).
  • Translation Review.
  • Towards a Theory of Constraints in Translation by Ali Darwish ( (1999).

External links

About translation

Translation of Hungarian literary works into English


Translation tools

Wikipedia and translation

de:bersetzung (Sprache) es:Traduccin eu:Itzulpengintza fr:Traduction it:Traduzione ja:翻訳 ko:번역 nl:Vertaling pt:Traduo ru:Перевод simple:Translation sl:Prevajanje zh-cn:翻译 zh-tw:翻譯


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