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What do you translate? The word or the meaning?
Thread poster: Brian Lottino (X)

Brian Lottino (X)
Japanese to English
Jun 19, 2002

I am extremely curious about how people (especially professionals) translate from one language to another. Do people usually translate words directly? Or do they translate the meaning of the sentence, to get a more natural sounding translation. I started wondering about this after seeing some of the recent replies to questions on KudoZ. Of course I won\'t name names, but there were some PhD\'s (among others) that agreed with a translation into english that was completely unnatural. This is probably because it was exactly translated word for word from the source language.

I don\'t have much experience in translating, but I have always held myself to the highest standards for accuracy and a natural sounding translation. Are there translators out there who just translate word for word and think that is good enough? If so, is it in fact good enough?


Dinorah Maria Tijerino-Acosta
Local time: 22:32
English to Spanish
+ ...
It depends on the client. Jun 20, 2002

Usually, I tried to translate the meaning of the sentence. But it also depends on the client. There are clients who ask me to translate literally. When they ask this, I usually write at the end of the translation that is a literal translation, that way I try to avoid further problems that this kind of translation might have. So, it really depends on the client. Maybe other translators can give you their point of view on this matter.


Giovanni Guarnieri MITI, MIL  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 03:32
Member (2004)
English to Italian
if... Jun 20, 2002

it sounds like a translation... it\'s not a good translation! Try and be inventive, but not too much! Some clients get back to me asking \"this word is missing!\" I usually stop working with these people. The final result is what counts. If a text is well written, nobody will complain... actually, they won\'t even notice it\'s a translation! A text should be translated naturally, using the target language syntactic structure. I translate from English into Italian, two completely different languages, so it\'s absolutely vital to almost \"rewrite\" the English in order to make it \"sound\" Italian.

So... totally against the \"word by word\" translation. That\'s not translating, it\'s lack of understanding of the translation process, and lack of imagination and the results are usually appalling.



Henry Dotterer
Local time: 22:32
two-part process Jun 20, 2002

I think you need to internalize first, then produce the target text. But you should also do a mental double-check in which you consider whether each word\'s intent has been fully conveyed.

There are some documents in which words can be skipped, or \"trans-fixed\", because they are redundant or imprecise. But when you are dealing with good source texts, words will not have been chosen lightly. Then, a word-level focus is crucial.


TService (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:32
English to German
Depends... ;) Jun 20, 2002

In my honest icon_wink.gif opinion it depends on two things: The character of the text and your own capabilities.

I just read that if it sounds like a translation - it\'s a bad one. T-R-U-E !

I always try to form an output text that\'s not to be identified as a translation. Depending on the target group you may include some gimmicks, e. g. special phrases that are common only in the target language - that makes a translation easier to understand and ensures that the reader likes to read what you wrote - instead of using your translation as a fix for a shaky table. icon_wink.gif

It\'s never a good idea to stick hard to the source text unless you\'re not really sure about what you\'re doing. If you have to make guesses to do a translation it could be the better alternative to stick to the text instead of sequencing guess after guess.

But if more than - let\'s say - one percent of the text requires sticking to the text you shouldn\'t do the translation at all - the output would become more and more \'google-like\'. You do want to produce translations; not comedy. icon_wink.gif


Joeri Van Liefferinge  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:32
Member (2002)
English to Dutch
+ ...
Two-part process indeed Jun 20, 2002

Henry is right: translating is done in two steps: |source text|-->|meaning|-->|target text|. You read the source text and you do what we call in Dutch \"onttalen\" (i.e. grasp the meaning without thinking about language or specific words). After that, you just say what you have in mind in the target language, without thinking about the words in the source text. Basically, you take the idea and you write that down in your own words. The order of the information should preferably be the same, but it is perfectly feasible to translate noun by a verb, if that sounds more natural in the target language. As Giovanni said: if it sounds like a translation, it\'s a bad translation.



Francesco Volpe  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:32
English to Italian
+ ...
It depends on the text, too. Jun 20, 2002

I agree with you all, but it is also important to consider the type of text you\'re translating. Think for example of commercial brochures, or even literature. In this case it\'s impossible to use a literal translation and it\'s better to \"re-invent\" from scratch, conveying the idea of the original text in a completely new form. These are very creative and challenging transaltions.

On the other side technical texts require less creativity, but still word by word translation should be avoided.



Lindita Luci
Local time: 04:32
English to Albanian
Words are nothing else but meaning carriers Jun 20, 2002

I do believe in free, communicative translations. I do believe that words are the carreirs of the meaning. If one translates the meaning he/she has already translated the word.

Based on all the proofreading and translation criticism I have performed until now, I have noticed that the bulk of the mistakes and mistranslation occur in literal translations, i.e. in word for word translations.


BelkisDV  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 22:32
Spanish to English
+ ...
My opinion Jun 20, 2002

This is a very good question and the answers given differentiate between a professional translator and someone who has not had the proper training in this field.

To translate means to convey the meaning of the original text in form and in context. This means that you translate the ideas, the thoughts while maintaining the style of the original document. Most often than not literal translations do not work precisely because they are word by word translations and the end result is unintelligible.

In my opinion, it does not depend on the client, it depends on your degree of seriousness towards the profession. I refuse to do literal translations when I know they won\'t work. Of course there are clients that do not understand this and what I do in those cases is to translate the literal translation back to the original language so that they becomes aware of why it does not work.




Kemal Mustajbegovic  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:32
English to Croatian
+ ...
Bravo Giovanni! Jun 20, 2002

Giovanni has said it all: \"If it sounds like translation it is not a good translation.\" PERIOD. FULLSTOP.

The aim of translation is to convey the right meaning; the literal words might be \"correct\" but nuance, subtlety and character can be lost.

Simple as that!

And that is the leading point for every true translator.


Alejandra Paz
Local time: 00:32
English to Spanish
+ ...
Translation ..... No doubt it is an art! Jun 20, 2002

There is the generalised misconcept that anyone having certain knowledge of a foreign language can translate. And this is undoubtedly untrue. Translation is a profession (and an art!) and as such, requires years of study (and practice!). In Argentina, it is a four-year career, so you can see that it takes a little more than just knowing another language.

Translation is not just the act of taking a word from one language and making it correspond to a word from another, it is the art of endowing the whole content of the target language with the same subtleness, resonance and power of meaning that the original text holds for native speakers. Not easy at all, eh?

Unfortunately, translators don’t get all the credit we really deserve. And this makes me feel angry and disappointed at the same time.

I also agree with Giovanni, if it sounds like a translation, it\'s not a good translation!


Monika Coulson  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:32
Member (2001)
English to Albanian
+ ...
It is a two-part proces Jun 20, 2002

It depends a lot on the subject. My very first book that I have translated is a strict religious book (535 pages). They wanted me to translate it literally and at the same time, keep the exact meaning. First I thought this was going to be a very difficult job or maybe impossible. Well, I was wrong for that case. A word can be translated in several different ways. You should only choose that word that keeps the literal meaning, and the translation is there, by keeping the same word and the same meaning. Of course it takes a bit longer to do that.

The second book after that (history and politics) was a different story. I tried to keep the same word for the same meaning, and I couldn\'t do that. So, yes, for most of the part, with this book I only translated the meaning, because it would not sound right if I would only translate the words.

I would first go for the literal translation. Then, if this is impossible, I would go for the easy one, translating the meaning, without keeping the words. An ideal translation is the one where you can keep the words and the meaning at the same time.

Good luck and welcome to the Translation World.


[ This Message was edited by: on 2002-06-20 16:05 ]


Ken Cox  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:32
German to English
+ ...
it all depends... Jun 20, 2002

My first reaction to the question was that it\'s like asking whether you should kiss on the first date: some people either do or don\'t as a matter of principle, and others play it by ear.

However, after reading all of the excellent replies, I can only wonder why most of the translations one finds on the Net are not particularly good (a rhetorical question, I hasten to add...)


Anke Schwarz
Local time: 04:32
English to Dutch
Woord voor woord vertalen Jun 20, 2002

Iedereen die een goede (vertaal)opleiding heeft gevolgd of goede vertaalvaardigheden heeft,weet dat dat niet kan. Ik had wel een universitair docent die indertijd pontificaal met het net uitgebrachte Groot Woordenboek Engels-Nederlands kwam aanzetten en zei: Nu zijn al onze vertaalproblemen opgelost. Triest, hè?

Als ervaren (ondertitel)vertaler weet ik maar al te goed dat woord-op-woord vertalen bijna nooit voldoet. En gezien de beperkte ruimte in titels moet je kiezen voor een pakkende vertaling.


Jerzy Czopik  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:32
Member (2003)
Polish to German
+ ...
Translation is a complicated process Jun 20, 2002

Monika wrote:


I would first go for the literal translation. Then, if this is impossible, I would go for the easy one, translating the meaning, without keeping the words. An ideal translation is the one where you can keep the words and the meaning at the same time.


As I agree with the last statement, that a good translation must be a balance between the words and the meaning, so I cannot agree with your statement, a translation of the meaning without keeping the words is easy.

I translate a lot of documents from German into Polish and form Polish into German. As both languages have a totaly different grammar, it is mostly not possible to translate every word, so I have allmost allways to translate by meaning. And it is complicated enough.

I have never studied to translate, but I learned it with all the years I´m a freelance translator. I have often heard people say, that you just need to know a foreign language to be able to translate from this language into your mother tongue. Well, sometimes it may be true, but only sometimes, in very very rare cases.

Documents I translate are mostly technical manuals and so on. A lot of people mean, it is not important how the translated text looks like, if it has a good style and is easy to read, or if it is just put together from words with appropriate meaning, but not correspondig with each other. Some fellow translators translate german textes into Polish and keep the order how the words occure in German in the translated text. Well, everyone reading the text will possibly understand it, but it sounds really artificially.

And after all, there are sometimes no translations for some words, so it is not possible to do a literary translation. For example in Germany we use \"sauber\" and \"rein\" both for \"clean\". And there is no difference between both either in English nor in Polish. In the early nineties there was an advertising slogan for washing powder \"Ariel\" in Germany - \"wäscht nicht nur sauber sondern rein\". I´ve seen it translated into Polish. Since there is no difference between \"sauber\" and \"rein\" in Polish, the translation was \"washes not only clean but clean\" - so far a literal translation.


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