From Words to Worlds: The Art and Science of Translation

What? When? Why? Translation

Translation involves the conversion of the intended meaning of a written message or text from one language into another. To effectively carry out this task, translators need to maintain a delicate equilibrium between retaining the essence of the original message and ensuring that the final product sounds natural and coherent in the target language. This way, the translated text can effectively convey the same message, emotions, and style as the original.

According to religious accounts, the Tower of Babel was a building erected by humans to reach heaven, but God confused their languages so that people could no longer understand each other and the building was left unfinished. Scholars interpret the story as a myth explaining linguistic diversity and the need for translation between languages.

However, it is difficult to determine who first tackled translation in history, as it is a practice thousands of years old and found in many different cultures. Nevertheless, historians believe that one of the earliest examples of translation was done in ancient Babylon about 4,000 years ago, when laws were translated from Sumerian into Akkadian.

Also in the classical world, Ancient Greece had a rich tradition of translation, as many Greek authors translated works from other languages, such as Egyptian or Persian. An important example is the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, which was done in the 3rd century BC.

Translation is in high demand due to globalization and digitalization. Companies and individuals require translations to communicate with international partners and customers, access new markets, and expand their reach beyond national borders.

In addition, there is a high demand for translators in literature, journalism, business, technology, and many other fields. Many people choose to learn a foreign language and become professional translators because it is an interesting and well-paid career.

Translation: art or science?

Translation can be considered both a science and an art. Translation is a science in that in the process, the translator is guided by a series of conventions such as grammatical rules, sentence structure, expressions, and style specific to the target language. This process is often supported by certain machine translation tools such as DeepL, Google translate, Reverso Context, Yandex, as well as so-called CAT tools such as SDL Trados, OmegaT, MemoQ, Memsource, Wordfast Pro, etc.

Translation is also based on theories and science, involving certain translation techniques and types of translation to which a specific language or style corresponds.

On the other hand, translation is an art, in that it is the final product of the activity undertaken by the translator and the translator is seen as a “text creator,” who, with prior preparation, puts their own mark on the final product. That is why translations and translation techniques are sometimes quite different.

Mastering the Art of Translation: Techniques for Flawless Translations

These techniques can be classified according to two criteria: direct translation techniques and oblique translation techniques.

A. Direct translation techniques

1. Borrowing

The incorporation of words or phrases from the source language into the target language, known as borrowing, does not necessarily entail translation. Rather than modifying the original word or phrase, borrowing involves directly adopting it. In essence, borrowing permits the use of foreign vocabulary in the target language, without the need for translation. Borrowing in translation is common in many languages and is often used to describe concepts or objects that have no equivalent in the target language.

e.g., English- Romanian: computer (English)- computer (Romanian); shopping (English)- shopping (Romanian), weekend (English)- weekend (Romanian), fast food (English)- fast-food (Romanian).

English-German: computer (English) – Computer (German), party (English) – Party (German), team (English)- Team (German).

2. Calque

A calque is a translation technique where a phrase from one language is translated literally into another language, creating a new term in the target language. This involves borrowing a word or phrase from the source language and constructing an equivalent term in the target language based on its literal translation.

e.g., English-Romanian: “Smartphone” – In Romanian, “smartphone” is translated as “telefon inteligent“, which literally means “intelligent phone.” This is a calque because the Romanian phrase is constructed by borrowing the English word “smartphone” and translating it word-for-word.

English-German: “Luftschloss” – In German, “Luftschloss” means “castle in the air” and is used to refer to an unrealistic or impractical idea. This is a calque because the German word “Luftschloss” is a direct translation of the English phrase “castle in the air.”

German-Romanian: “Saltea pneumatică” – In Romanian, “saltea pneumatică” is used to describe an air mattress. This is a calque because the Romanian phrase is constructed by directly translating the German word “Luftmatratze“, which means “air mattress.”

3. Literal Translation

Literal translation technique, also known as word-for-word translation, is a translation approach where the translator attempts to translate each word in the source text directly into the target language. This technique does not take into account the nuances of the language or cultural differences, and may result in a translation that is stilted, awkward, or even nonsensical.

e.g., 1. The cat is on the table. (English)

Pisica este pe masă. (Romanian)

2. I’m pulling your leg. (English)

Ich ziehe dein Bein. (German)

The idiom “to pull someone’s leg” does not exist in German, so a more natural translation would be: Ich mache nur Spaß.

The idiom “to pull someone’s leg” does not exist in German, so a more natural translation would be: Ich mache nur Spaß.

B. Oblique translation techniques

1. Transposition

Transposition involves changing the grammatical structure of a sentence without changing the meaning. This can be done by switching the order of words or phrases within a sentence, or by changing the part of speech of a word.

1. I saw a black cat on the roof. (English)

Pe acoperiș am văzut o pisică neagră. (Romanian)

2. Ich habe keine Zeit, um fernzusehen. (German)

I have no time for watching TV. (English)

In this example, the translator has used transposition to change the German infinitive verb “fernsehen” (to watch TV) to the English gerund “watching TV.” The preposition “um” (to) is omitted in the English sentence. The overall meaning of the sentence remains the same, but the language and structure have been adapted to English.

2. Modulation

Modulation is a translation technique where the translator changes the point of view to preserve the natural flow of a message, instead of using a literal translation that may not make sense. The language and structure are adjusted to convey the intended meaning effectively in the target language.

1. The river is shallow. (English)

Râul nu este adânc. (Romanian)

2. Das Buch wurde von der Autorin geschrieben. (German)

The author wrote the book. (English)

This technique highlights the author’s role in writing the book. The meaning stays the same, but the language is adjusted for a natural English translation.

3. Reformulation (Equivalence)

Reformulation is a translation technique where the translator finds a new way to express the same message in the target language, without changing its meaning. It is commonly used when there are no direct equivalents or cultural differences between languages, and when translating idiomatic expressions or cultural references.

1. Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof. (German)

a. I only understand train station. (English, literal translation)

b. It’s all Greek to me. (English, reformulation used)

The reformulated English translation conveys the same meaning as the German idiom, but uses a common expression in English to convey a complete lack of understanding.

2. Out of sight, out of mind. (English)

Ochii care nu se văd, se uită. (Romanian, reformulation used)

4. Adaptation

Adaptation is a translation technique used to ensure that the target audience can fully understand and relate to the text being translated. It involves adjusting the source text to suit the cultural, linguistic, and social context of the target audience. This technique is often used for translating jokes or expressions that may not exist or be common in the target culture. By using culturally acceptable and relevant phrases in the translation, the readers can feel that the text was created specifically for them. The goal is to create a “culture-friendly” translation that is seamless and feels natural to the target audience.

1. Vorstandsdirektor / Vorstandsdirektor-Stv. (German)

President / Chief Executive Marketing & Sales. (English)

These titles, of the executives who have signed the airline magazine editorial, have been adapted to American-English norms.

5. Compensation

Compensation is a translation technique that involves making up for a loss of meaning in one part of a text by adding extra information in another part. It can be used to convey meaning that has been lost or cannot be translated from the source text, particularly in cases where there is no equivalent word or phrase in the target language. Compensation can involve adding extra words or sentences, restructuring the text, or using footnotes or annotations to provide additional information.

In German, there are two forms of the second-person singular pronoun: “du” and “Sie“. “Du” is informal, while “Sie” is formal and used in professional or formal settings. English uses “you” in both formal and informal settings.

When translating from German to English, the translator may need to compensate for the lack of a formal/informal distinction in English. For example, if the original German text uses “Sie” to address someone, the translator may need to compensate by using a formal alternative like “Madam” or “Sir” in English to convey the appropriate level of politeness and respect. The same is the case for Romanian personal pronouns of politeness “dumneavoastră, dumneata, dumnealui“, etc.

6. Reduction

Reduction is a translation strategy in which the text’s length is reduced, while maintaining the original meaning. The goal is to convey the same message in fewer words. It is commonly used in marketing materials, advertisements, and slogans.

1. Das ist ein Widerspruch in sich selbst. (German)

That’s a contradiction. (English, reduction used)

7. Expansion

Expansion is a translation technique that involves adding additional words or phrases to the target text to convey the full meaning of the source text, which may be necessary when the source text contains untranslatable words or concepts or when the target language requires more words to express the same idea.

1. Ich habe es dir gesagt. (German)

I have told it to you. (English, literal translation)

I’ve already warned you about it. (English, expansion used)

2. În cultura românească, coliva este un aliment tradițional servit la parastase. (Romanian)

In Romanian culture, coliva, a traditional food served at memorial services, is an elaborate dish made from boiled wheat berries, nuts, and honey, mixed together to form a dense, sweet pudding-like consistency. (English)

Lost in Translation? Here are some solutions for common translation problems!

Translation problems are difficulties that arise during the process of translating a text from one language to another. These problems can be caused by various factors such as cultural differences, linguistic variations, and ambiguity in the source text. Some common translation problems include:

a. Idiomatic expressions: When the source text contains idiomatic expressions, it can be difficult to find an equivalent expression in the target language.

One way to handle idiomatic expressions is to search for a similar expression or reword the sentence. In cases where a direct translation is not possible, the translator can add a footnote or an explanation in parentheses to clarify the meaning.

b. Cultural references: References to cultural events or practices that are unique to the source language may be challenging to translate, especially if the target culture is unfamiliar with them.

The translator can provide additional context or explanation to help the target audience understand the reference. Alternatively, the translator may need to replace the cultural reference with a similar one that is more familiar to the target audience.

c. Technical vocabulary: Technical terms and jargon may be difficult to translate accurately, especially if the translator is not familiar with the subject matter.

The translator can conduct research to find accurate translations for technical terms and jargon. If no equivalent translation exists, the translator may need to use descriptive phrases or explanations to convey the intended meaning.

d. Grammatical differences: Languages have different grammar rules, which can lead to problems in translation.

A translator should try to maintain grammatical correctness while translating, and restructure sentences if needed to ensure that the translation reads naturally in the target language.

e. Ambiguity: Sometimes the source text may be ambiguous, and it can be challenging to determine the intended meaning.

The translator can communicate with the source text’s author or editor to understand the intended meaning better. If that is not feasible, the translator may have to use their discretion to convey the probable meaning.

f. Regional variations: Different regions within a language can have variations in vocabulary and grammar, making it difficult to find an appropriate translation that will be understood by all.

Translator can choose a more widely understood word/phrase or add a note to clarify regional variations.

g. Tone and style: The tone and style of the source text may not be easily translatable into the target language, resulting in a loss of the intended meaning or tone.

To maintain the intended tone and style, the translator can adapt the language in the target text accordingly. However, if this is not feasible, the translator can provide an explanation to the target audience.

In summary, an art and also a science, translation is a multifaceted discipline that requires a thorough understanding of the source and target languages as well as the cultural context surrounding them. Despite the many challenges that translators may face, such as navigating idiomatic expressions and technical language, they can utilize a variety of techniques, strategies, and tools to effectively convey meaning and facilitate cross-cultural communication. Despite the difficulties inherent in translation, it remains a crucial means of promoting global understanding and collaboration by enabling individuals and communities to share their ideas and perspectives with the world.

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