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A-Z of Translation

Welcome to our A-Z of Translation, a collection of random thoughts inspired by 20 years of worrying about words and agonising over alternatives. With 30th September 2019 being International Translation Day, we thought it was the ideal date to launch this series of blog posts.


Here goes with the letter A:


Adaptation – What makes perfect sense in one language can become stilted or even unintelligible when translated literally into another language, either because usage is different or because of missing information.

As an example of usage, when was the last time someone wished you "Good appetite" at the start of a meal, as is common in many other languages? In a normal domestic setting in the UK, most people probably wouldn't say anything at all unless they had guests, while in a restaurant we have come to expect a peremptory "Enjoy your meal!" (depending on the establishment, perhaps even “Enjoy, guys”…). For the translator, the challenge is to find a form of words that sounds natural and fits the context – maybe for the domestic host/hostess, a timid "Do start" would work?

And then there's information: when writing, most people assume that certain information is known to the reader. If the police find that 20 per cent of drivers stopped at random on a busy road over a 24-hour period don't have a valid MOT, for example, the statement they put out won't explain what an MOT is. When translating the statement, one would need to replace MOT with something like "vehicle inspection certificate" in order to convey that information to a non-UK audience.

So rather than "just translating", intelligent adaptation is often called for. As a general principle, we believe that translators should aim for "information equivalence", i.e. the translation should provide the reader with the same information as that gained by a reader of the original document. As such, the ability to bridge cultural gaps can be just as important as language skills.