Translation isn’t about words — translation is all about words

A recurring statement in the translation industry is that “translation isn’t about words”. To most non-translators, this is somewhat counter-intuitive, because translation is all about words. You take words from one language, do this translation shtick, you get words in another language. Heck, translators even get paid by the word in most countries (except Germany, where we invoice by the “standard line” of 55 characters including spaces)!

Still, my colleagues are on to something: “Translation isn’t about the words” refers to the fact that translating exclusively the words leads to bad translations. Okay, so we have to watch out for differences in grammar and syntax, because the word order has to be changed and we need to affix things to words that are aptly named suffixes and prefixes (or, to encompass both, “affixes” – go figure). In some languages, those affixes even obliterate the need to tell separately who is doing what: “I am writing you a letter.” – “Te escribo una carta.” The Spanish -o Suffix to the verb escribir already says that it is me who is writing, so the personal pronoun “I” (“yo” in Spanish) drops. Furthermore, I have chosen to use present progressive in the English example to emphasise that I am writing right now. As-is, the Spanish sentence could also be back-translated as “I write you a letter” (present tense), so maybe, we should clarify by adding “ahora” or “en este momento” to the Spanish present tense sentence or even switch to “Estoy escribiendo una carta para ti” (“estar” + gerund to express an action in course right now, and another way to refer to the adressed person).

As you can see, even a very easy sentence can pose translation problems that go beyond “translating words”. What my colleagues mean when they say that “translation isn’t about words” is that translation is about meaning. In an ideal world, the reader of a translation would get the exact same information content, their own lingual sign for the same denotation, as  the science of semantics would put it. For the IT crowd out there: You know that this 12x12 is the same as this MB5!.1PT*&@H````-24A$4@````P````,"`,```!AJZS5````&71%6'13;V9TM=V%R90!!9&]B92!);6%G95)E861Y<<EE/`````903%1%F<R9````<Z-5L```M`"-)1$%4>-IB8$0"#(P,<(#)863$Q<&M!\Q@Q,7!I@<)``08`!!T`#5X:ZCY,`````$E%3D2N0F""` (UUEncoded) or this iVBORw0KGgoAAAANSUhEUgAAAAwAAAAMCAMAAABhq6zVAAAAGXRFWHRTb2Z0d2FyZQBBZG9iZSBJbWFnZVJlYWR5ccllPAAAAAZQTFRFmcyZAAAAc6NVsAAAACNJREFUeNpiYEQCDIwMcIDJYWTExcGtB8xgxMXBpgcJAAQYABB0ADV4a6j5AAAAAElFTkSuQmCC(Base64). Language translation is very comparable to that: It looks totally different, but it means the same. In the real world, language shapes the way people think (and vice-versa). Even words that seem to mean the same thing might be interpreted differently by different cultures or they can have different connotations (implied instead of expressed meaning).

The all-important meaning part is where professional translators get to earn their money. They don’t just need foreign-language and foreign-culture skills, but also relevant knowledge about the field they work in. It is also the reason translators keep getting back to their clients and ask them for context, background resources or a straight answer to clarify a source text meaning. They want to be sure to render the correct meaning in the target language, and you would be surprised how often texts are ambiguous and unclear, or full of uncommon and unexplained abbreviations. It is no wonder either that a good legal translator will know (at least) two languages and two legal systems and their respective terminology, their style and their specific way of structuring texts. I have had a look into German and French court orders and I can tell you: Things will show up in utterly different sections than you are used to – and my quick look didn’t even stumble on the fundamental systemic differences between Common Law and Civil Law. All I know is: I will safely stay with IT and IT-related Marketing texts, that is the league I play in. Conversely, my colleague Karen, specialised in Finance, scratches her head when confronted with IT translation work. This means: For each industry and field of work, you would better find a fittingly specialised translator for the job. They are language experts, but they are also adepts in your field.

If all is well, the translator has converted all meaning correctly into the target encoding system, er, language. For some translations, this is enough and he will send it back to the client. “Translation isn’t about words” has been satisfied. For other translations, especially those you want to publish to a wider audience, this might not be enough. The raw translation will be edited into a finer text. That’s when the saying gets turned upside down: Now, it’s “translation is all about words” again, because your translator will spend a good amount of time on wording it just right. He will try out synonyms or even change whole sentences several times until he is satisfied that the meaning is not just transported correctly, but that it is transferred in the most moving, lucid and fitting manner and tonality. This may happen most often for marketing or literary translations, but even for technical translations, I keep changing the “finished” translation to make it sound “more German” or because I decide to split a sentence to raise legibility. You won’t get industry knowledge combined with this kind of raised language awareness from engineers or bilingual secretaries. Besides, those people have other jobs to fulfil.

Convinced to hire a pro? If you want to know more about what Christopher Köbel can do for you on the IT/Marketing translation front, get in touch with DeFrEnT …it’s different!

Christopher Köbel

IT / IT-Marketing / Tech in DE / FR / EN | XING Profil

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