Translation Techniques for the Professional Translator

Most professional translators use a raft of translation techniques without really thinking about them. Translation techniques are a little like the use of grammar.  A child learns the grammar of their own native language by a gradual process and doesn’t have to think every time he or she speaks.

This changes when someone learns another language for the first time. The different grammar rules then force the language learner to learn the grammar in a less intuitive way. The translator picks up the sorts of translation techniques described below in a way that is more or less as intuitive as the native grammar learner and probably isn’t even aware of the descript[tors given to the techniques they commonly use.

 Translation Techniques

Translation techniques can be divided fairly neatly into two main groups: direct translation techniques and indirect or oblique techniques. The choice of techniques depends a lot on the language pairing. Some language pairs lend themselves more to direct translation and other pairs lend themselves more to indirect techniques.

Most professional translators concentrate on a particular language pair, although there may be a small percentage who are perfectly capable of translating two or more language pairs. Whatever the pair chosen, it is likely that the successful translator has a good understanding of both cultures in which the languages he or she works with are embedded. The translation techniques relate to the culture and the history of the evolution of a language.

Direct Translation Techniques

Literal translation can be used when languages use the same syntax or grammar so that a translation is a word for word replacement. This is the system which most free translation tools tend to use, although they are getting more sophisticated. In most cases, literal translation doesn’t work all the time and in many language pairs it might not work at all. For example, a Spanish to English (or vice versa) sentence translation could work with some sentences, but not with others. The same sentence that can be literally translated from Spanish to English may not be literally translated from Spanish to German.

Calque is the use of a phrase from another language and more or less translated word for word. There are many examples of calque, especially in translation fields that are relatively specialized, such as in legal, business, medical and scientific translation.

Two Simple Examples of Calque are:

● “Casa Blanca” in Spanish has been taken from the English “White House”
● “Beer Garden” in English has been taken from the German “Biergarten”

Borrowing words are those that have literally been taken from one language and used unchanged in another language. Borrowing has probably increased dramatically during the last century and the rate is probably increasing as many words are borrowed from emerging technological change. Borrowed French words like café, restaurant and resume have been around for a long time in English. Others like safari (from Kiswahili) are more recent.

Indirect or Oblique Translation Techniques

Indirect translation is probably more common than direct translation and is the reason why automated translation software that typically uses direct translation techniques becomes unstuck and gives rise to clumsy translation. The professional translator, grounded in the two languages of choice automatically uses one or another indirect translation technique, again depending on the language pair and how similar their syntax is.

Modulation is the use of different phrases to mean the same thing in the two languages translated. If the phrase was translated more literally, it would sound unnatural to the reader.

Transposition is the change of word order in a sentence. This is often something that can be so confusing for the adult learner of a new language. Transposition rules tend to be learned intuitively by the native speaker, but unless that person has learned another language the same way may be trapped when translating a new phrase for the first time using their own native language rules. A typical example is the order of adjective and noun. In English, the adjective always precedes the noun, whereas in France it usually (but not always) follows the noun.

Adaptation is used a lot in marketing translation. It is when a commonly used expression or phrase in one language just wouldn’t have any relevance in another language because the cultural context is missing. One example is a European trying to explain that a problem is like completing a jigsaw puzzle with the jigsaw pieces missing to a group of rural Africans. The words can be translated, but the concept of a jigsaw (and why on Earth any sane person would want to have one) may be totally absent in the rural African context.