To translate is defined as “to render or express in another language.” It also means to explain in simple language, to interpret or infer significance, and to transform or convert. A translation involves all of these aspects and more. Expert translation requires:
- command of the source and target languages,
- a deep understanding of the cultural context and nuances of both languages,
- insightful knowledge of correlated idioms and etymology between the languages,
- familiarity and experience in the subject matter, and
- the ability to convey the same meaning expressed in the original message.
Can Machine Translation Do the Work?
People in all walks of life can use online machine translation to quickly glean some understanding of a text. For the most part, they are happy enough to get an awkward or partially correct translation—because it is fast and it is free. However, this works only for short texts, and not always! As you will see in the first SlideShare below, machine translation produces unreliable results. In education, academia, the sciences, literature, the media, and any other professional context, good quality is not only necessary but critical.
While a machine translation can be useful as a quick fix, it does not have the quality or standards of a professional translation. Rather than shedding light on the original text, machine translation can often read as odd or funny. In extreme cases, it can even be potentially harmful.
A Few Giggles at the Expense of Machine Translation
Let’s explore in more detail how expert translators find solutions for challenges that are beyond the capabilities of machine translation.
Translation Solution: Adjective Inversion
Literal or word-for-word (verbum pro verbum) translations may disregard key natural features in the target language. An example of this in English-to-Spanish translation is consistently placing adjectives before nouns, in essence assuming the Spanish grammatical structure is the same as the English grammatical structure. For example, “silver moon” (la plateada luna) is admissible in poetic language but does not work in everyday situations. However, in the case of “gold coin,” the adjective clause should follow the noun, e.g., moneda de oro, because it refers to the material rather than the color. If instead you follow the English grammatical structure, then it would literally result in la dorada moneda (gilt or gilded coin).
Translation Solution: Fidelity vs. Transparency
Addressing differences such as these raises the typical translation problem of fidelity vs. transparency. In the world of translation, fidelity deals with formal equivalence, or adherence to the lexical details and grammatical structure of the original language. Transparency, on the other hand, works through functional equivalence, that is, transporting the original text to the target language in such a way that it elicits a similar response to the one achieved in the source language.
When a translation conforms to fidelity it is called “faithful,” and it is directed at formal equivalence. Literal translations may enhance the foreign quality of the original text by using expressions from the source language to provide “local color.” This approach is often preferred in historic, religious, and some literary translations.
On the other hand, when a translation addresses transparency, it is called “idiomatic,” and it appears to a native speaker of the target language as natural as if it had been originally conceived in that language. Functional equivalence strives to work in the same that way “people interact in cultures,” as posited by Eugene Nida, one of the founders of modern translation studies.
Competent translators balance both approaches sensibly. They need to decide which one is the most effective, sometimes even combining them in the same text.
Translation Solution: False Cognates vs. False Friends
One of the common difficulties in translations is using false equivalents, such as false cognates and false friends. These terms may sound similar, but they are not the same.
Cognates are words that have the same linguistic derivation as another (e.g., English father, German Vater, Latin pater). False cognates are pairs of words that have similar sounds and meanings, i.e., they seem to be cognates, but they actually have different origins (etymologies). The words can belong to the same language or be from different languages. Their modern meanings may or may not be similar. If they currently have the same meaning, they are false cognates, but true friends. Here are four examples of false cognates:
[Main Source: Stack Exchange]
False friends, on the other hand, are pairs of words in two different languages or dialects that look or sound similar, but have different meanings. They may be connected etymologically, but their meanings have shifted in time.
English and Spanish, which have both borrowed from Greek and Latin, have many false friends. For instance, ‘embarrassed’ and embarazada look and sound similar, but whereas ‘embarrassed’ means self-conscious or ill at ease, embarazada means pregnant. Actually, ‘embarrass’ comes from the French embarrasser, (to encumber, hamper), which is derived from the Spanish embarazar, a typical case of a true cognate that is a false friend. The SlideShare below gives a few examples of false friends, which can be either true or false cognates.
A competent translator needs to be aware of the incorrect equivalents that false cognates, false friends, and their combinations produce. It is the translator’s responsibility to ascertain whether the source text may have several possible meanings, and the translation should reflect the original intention as closely as possible, whether by being faithful or transparent.
We will continue to explore translation challenges and solutions in future blog posts. If there are topics you would like us to cover, please use the Comments box.