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Translation is the interpretation of the meaning of a text in one language (the "source text") and the production, in another language, of an equivalent text (the "target text," or "translation") that communicates the same message.

Translation must take into account a number of constraints, including context, the rules of grammar of the two languages, their writing conventions, their idioms and the like. Consequently, as has been recognized at least since the time of the translator Martin Luther, one translates best into the language that one knows best.

Traditionally translation has been a human activity, though attempts have been made to computerize or otherwise automate the translation of natural-language texts (machine translation) or to use computers as an aid to translation (computer-assisted translation).

Perhaps the most common misconception about translation is that there exists a simple "word-for-word" relation between any two languages, and that translation is therefore a straightforward and mechanical process. On the contrary, translation is always fraught with uncertainties and with the potential for inadvertent "spilling over" of idioms and usages from one language into the other, producing linguistic hybrids, for example, "Franglais" (French-English), "Spanglish" (Spanish-English) and "Poglish" (Polish-English).

The term and the concept

Rosetta Stone.

Etymologically, "translation" is a "carrying across" or "bringing across." The Latin "translatio" derives from the past participle, "translatus," of "transferre" ("to transfer" — from "trans," "across" + "ferre," "to carry" or "to bring"). The modern Romance, Germanic and Slavic European languages have generally formed their own equivalent terms for this concept after the Latin model — after "transferre" or after the kindred "traducere" ("to bring across" or "to lead across").

Additionally, the Greek term for "translation," "metaphrasis" ("a speaking across"), has supplied English with "metaphrase" — a "literal translation," or "word-for-word" translation — as contrasted with "paraphrase" ("a saying in other words," from the Greek "paraphrasis").


Many newcomers to translation erroneously believe it to be an exact science, and mistakenly assume that firmly-defined one-to-one correlations exist between words and phrases in different languages, thus rendering translations fixed and identically-reproducible, much as in cryptography. They assume that all that is needed in order to translate a text is to encode and decode between languages, using a translation dictionary as the codebook.[1]

On the contrary, such a fixed relationship would only exist, were a new language synthesized and continually synchronized with another, existing language in such a way that each word would forever carry exactly the same scope and shades of meaning, with careful attention being given to the preservation of etymological roots and lexical "ecological niches," assuming that these were known with certainty.[2]

If the new language were then ever to take on a life of its own apart from such cryptographic use, each word would naturally begin to assume new shades of meaning and cast off previous associations, thereby vitiating any such synthetic synchronization. Henceforth translation would require the disciplines described in this article.

There has been debate as to whether translation is an art or a craft. Literary translators, such as Gregory Rabassa in If This Be Treason, argue that translation is an art, though one that it is teachable. Other translators, mostly those who work on technical, business or legal documents, regard their métier as a craft — one that can not only be taught, but that is subject to linguistic analysis and that benefits from academic study.

Most translators will agree that the situation depends on the nature of the text being translated. A simple document, e.g. a product brochure, can often be translated quickly, using techniques familiar to advanced language-students. By contrast, a newspaper editorial, a political speech, or a book on almost any subject will require not only the craft of good language skills and research technique, but a substantial knowledge of the subject matter, a cultural sensitivity, and a mastery of the art of good writing. Translation has, indeed, served as a writing school for many recognized writers.


Main article: Interpreting

A distinction is made between translating — transferring, between languages, ideas that are expressed in writing — and interpreting, which is the transferring of ideas expressed orally or (as with sign language) by gesture.

Although interpreting can be considered a subcategory of translation in regard to the analysis of the processes involved (translation studies), in practice the skills required for these two activities are quite different. Translators and interpreters are trained in entirely different manners. Translators receive extensive practice with representative texts in various subject areas, learn to compile and manage glossaries of relevant terminology, and master the use of both current document-related software (for example, word processors, desktop publishing systems, and graphics or presentation software) and computer-assisted translation (CAT) software tools.

Interpreters, by contrast, are trained in precise listening skills under taxing conditions, memory and note-taking techniques for consecutive interpreting (in which the interpreter listens and takes notes while the speaker speaks, and then after several minutes provides the version in the other language), and split-attention for simultaneous interpreting (in which the interpreter, usually in a booth with a headset and microphone, listens and speaks at the same time, usually producing the interpreted version only seconds after the speaker provides the original).

The industry expects interpreters to be about 70% accurate; that is to say that interpretation is an approximate version of the original. Translations should be over 99% accurate, by contrast.

The process

The translation process, whether it be for translation or interpreting, can be described 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 analyze 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, in general, 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 under discussion is essential.

In recent years, studies in cognitive linguistics have provided valuable insights into the cognitive process of translation.

Measuring success

As the goal of translation is to ensure that the source text and target text communicate the same message, while taking into account the 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 two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

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 results in patent nonsense with only a humorous value (see "round-trip translation").

Nevertheless, in certain contexts a translator may knowingly strive to produce a literal translation. For example, literary translators and translators of religious or historic texts often adhere to the source 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 some recent translation theories. In some quarters, the idea that acceptable translations can be as creative and original as their source text is gaining momentum.

In recent decades, the most prominent advocates of non-transparent translation modes have included the French translation scholar Antoine Berman, who identified twelve deforming tendencies inherent in most prose translations (L’épreuve de l’étranger, 1984), and the American theorist Lawrence Venuti, who has called upon translators to apply "foreignizing" translation strategies instead of domesticating ones (see, for example, his "Call to Action" in The Translator’s Invisibility, 1994).


Many non-transparent-translation theories draw on concepts of German Romanticism, with the most obvious influence on latter-day theories of "foreignization" being the German theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher. In his seminal lecture "On the Different Methods of Translation" (1813) he distinguished between translation methods that move "the writer toward [the reader]", i.e., transparency, and those that move the "reader toward [the author]", i.e., respecting the foreignness of the source text. Schleiermacher clearly favored the latter. 'It should be pointed out, however, that his preference was not so much motivated by a desire to embrace the foreign, but rather was intended as a nationalist practice to oppose France's cultural domination and to promote German literature'.

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. This approach may be related to tendency to over glory the prophesy of passages related to understandable deep religious affinity or feelings of emotional motion of mission to really teaching the unbelievers. Similar examples may be found in medieval Christian literature adjusting the text to estimated audience customs and values.


Main article: Dynamic and formal equivalence

The question of faithfulness vs. transparency has also been formulated in terms of, respectively, "formal equivalence" and "dynamic equivalence."

"Dynamic equivalence" (or "functional equivalence") conveys the essential thought expressed in a source text — if necessary, at the expense of literality, original sememe and word order, the source text's active vs. passive voice, etc.

By contrast, "formal equivalence" (sought via "literal" translation) attempts to render the text "literally," or "word for word" (the latter expression being itself a word-for-word rendering of the classical Latin "verbum pro verbo") — if necessary, at the expense of features natural to the target language.

There is, however, no sharp boundary between dynamic and formal equivalence. On the contrary, they represent a spectrum of translation approaches. Each is used at various times and in various contexts by the same translator, and at various points within the same text — sometimes simultaneously. Competent translation, indeed, entails the judicious blending of dynamic and formal equivalents. And, in some cases, a translation may be both dynamically and formally equivalent to the original text.

Specialized translation

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

Commercial translation

The translation of commercial (business) texts. This category may include marketing and promotional materials directed to consumers, or the translation of administrative texts.

Computer translation

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

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

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

Video-game translation

The translation of video games is a very recent and specialised area within translation studies.

General translation

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

Legal translation

Main 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.

Medical translation

The translation of works of a medical nature.

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

Pedagogic translation

Pedagogic translation is translation practiced as a means of learning a second language.

It is used to enrich (and assess) a student's vocabulary in the second language, help assimilate new syntactic structures, and verify the student's understanding.

Unlike other types of translation, pedagogic translation takes place in the student's native (or dominant) language as well as in the second language. That is, the student will translate both to and from the second language.

Another difference between this and other modes of translation is that the goal is often literal translation of phrases taken out of context, and of text fragments, which may be completely fabricated for the purposes of the exercise.

Pedagogic translation should not be confused with scholarly translation.

Scientific translation

The translation of scientific research papers, abstracts, conference proceedings, and other publications from one language into another. The specialized technical vocabulary used by researchers in each discipline demand that the translator of scientific texts have technical as well as linguistic expertise.

Scholarly translation

The translation of specialized 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 terminology, that is, words or expressions that are used (almost) only within a specific field, or that describe that field in a great deal of detail.

Dubbing and subtitling

Dialogs and narrations of feature movies and foreign TV programs need to be translated for local viewers. In this case, translation for dubbing and translation for film subtitles demand different versions for the best effect. Thus, unlike the original language, the subtitles of the translated language are quite often not verbatim with the dialogue.


Machine translation

Main article: Machine translation

Machine translation (MT), as currently practiced, is a procedure whereby, in principle, a computer program, once activated, analyses a source text and produces a target text, without further human intervention.

In reality, however, most machine translation does involve human intervention: pre-editing and post-editing. In machine translation, the human translator supports the machine.

To date, machine translation — a major goal of natural-language processing — has met with limited success.


Machine translation has been brought to a large public by tools available on the Internet, such as AltaVista's Babel Fish, and by low-cost programs such as Babylon. These tools produce a "gisting translation" — a rough translation that "gives the gist" of the source text, but is not otherwise usable.

Nevertheless, in regard to texts (e.g., weather reports) with limited ranges of vocabulary and simple sentence structure, machine translation can deliver useful results. Alternatively, the use of a controlled language, combined with a machine-translation tool, will typically generate largely comprehensible translations, as demonstrated at Uwe Muegge's website.


Engineer and futurist Raymond Kurzweil has predicted that, by 2012, machine translation will be powerful enough to dominate the field of translation. Likewise, in 2004, MIT's Technology Review listed universal translation and interpretation as likely to become available "within a decade." Such claims have, however, been made since the first serious forays into machine translation, in the 1950s.

The flaw in indiscriminate reliance on machine translation is that human language is context-embedded and that, inescapably, it takes a human being to adequately comprehend a human context. And even purely human-generated translations are prone to error.

Computer assist

Main 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 an actual, human translator. Computer-assisted translation can include standard dictionary and grammar software; however, the term is normally used to refer to a range of specialized programs available for the translator, including translation memory, terminology management and alignment programs.

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 analyzing the nature of transformation in cultures. For example, ethnography is considered a translated narrative of an abstract living culture.

See also



  • See also:
    • Bible translators
    • List of translators


  1. This approach was recounted in Lt. Viktor Belenko's 1974 Soviet defection, and his scrawled "English" translation of his desire to deliver the MIG-25. Though he understood that there would be a few limitations in his translation, he confused the authorities because it read more like a threat than an invitation. MIG Pilot: The Final Escape of Lt. Belenko, 1980 ISBN 978-0380538683.
  2. Samuel Johnson in his preface to A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755 and Jonathon Green's Chasing the Sun, 1996 ISBN 978-0224040105, speak at length of the trials, in-depth and inconclusive investigations, disagreements, and finally the expedient solutions that lexicographers must undertake in the name of practicality.


  • Balcerzan, Edward, ed., Pisarze polscy o sztuce przekładu, 1440-1974: Antologia (Polish Writers on the Art of Translation, 1440-1974: an Anthology), Poznań, Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, 1977.
  • Berman, Antoine (1984). "L’épreuve de l’étranger". Excerpted in English in: Venuti, Lawrence, editor (2002, 2nd edition 2004). The Translation Studies Reader.
  • Darwish, Ali (1999). "Towards a Theory of Constraints in Translation". (@turjuman Online).
  • Kasparek, Christopher, "The Translator's Endless Toil," The Polish Review, vol. XXVIII, no. 2, 1983, pp. 83-87. Includes a discussion of European-language cognates of the term, "translation."
  • Kelly, L.G. (1979). The True Interpreter: a History of Translation Theory and Practice in the West, New York, St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-82057-7.
  • Muegge, Uwe (2005). Translation Contract: A Standards-Based Model Solution, AuthorHouse. ISBN 1-4184-1636-3.
  • Rose, Marilyn Gaddis, guest editor (1980). Translation: agent of communication. (A special issue of Pacific Moana Quarterly, 5:1)
  • Schleiermacher, Friedrich (1813). "Über die verschiedenen Methoden des Übersetzens". Reprinted as "On the Different Methods of Translating" in: Venuti, Lawrence, editor (2002, 2nd edition 2004). The Translation Studies Reader.
  • Simms, Norman, editor (1983). Nimrod's Sin: Treason and Translation in a Multilingual World.
  • Venuti, Lawrence (1994). The Translator's Invisibility, Routledge. ISBN 0-415-11538-8.

External links




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