What is translation?

In today’s globalised world, translation is an activity that continues to grow at a rapid pace. It seems to be everywhere we look. It is fundamental to the United Nations, the European Union, the World Trade Organisation and many other international bodies that regulate aspects of modern life. It is part and parcel of modern business, and there’s hardly a major industry that doesn’t use and produce translations for its own operations.

Translation is indeed everywhere and it is important to understand its place and impact in the world around us. In our daily lives, we can encounter translation on breakfast cereal packets, on cosmetics packaging, on mobile phone packaging or instructions. You may also encounter translation in newspapers (translated articles or quotes), and in news items on TV (sometimes interpreted). TV programmes are often translated, as are some textbooks, computer program interfaces, internet sites, and the books and magazines we read. International and EU law, which dictates how we live, is also likely to be in translation. Furthermore, you may be reading the Bible in translation, listening to music in translation, or watching films in translation (dubbed or subtitled).

The visibility and presence of translation differs depending on where you are in the world, as does its importance and people’s perceptions of its role. There are countries and regions where it is very visible such as Quebec, a bilingual province in Canada, or Catalonia, a Spanish bilingual province, where there may be a lot of translating happening. By contrast, in the United Kingdom, apart from in Wales, English dominates so examples of translation may not be so obvious.

Translation is a complex process which is of interest not only to linguists, translators and language teachers, but also to computer programmers who are interested in creating computer programs that can perform automatic translations. The concept of translation is quite an intriguing one. The English word translation derives from the Latin translatio (‘transporting’), coming from the participle of the verb transferre (‘to carry over’). But what does this work of ‘carrying over’ actually involve?

Before moving on to a more thorough description of what translation entails, it might be interesting to think of what we understand by the term translation? Does it have several meanings? Is translation focused on the written word? What words encapsulate what translation is? Do words such as communication, understanding, transfer, meaning, culture, context, sharing, interpretation, transformation, rewriting, exchange, conversion, equivalence, message, language, process, convert, decoding, written, access, for example, spring to mind?

As you will have noticed, translation is an incredibly broad notion and can be understood in many different ways. Because it has several meanings it can refer to:

  • the act of producing a translation (the process of translating as an activity)
  • the product (a text that has been translated)
  • the subject field  which can include the linguistic, cultural and ideological phenomena.

While translation refers to the process of translating a written text or a written text product, the term is sometimes incorrectly used to refer to oral translation of a spoken message or text. This confusion is, in fact, frequent and it should be made clear that translation refers to written activities and interpreting refers to oral activities.

Translators work with a variety of genres (e.g. literary translation, technical translation, audio-visual translation), in different contexts (e.g. for government or in a commercial setting) and use a range of tools such as translation memory software and computer-aided translation (CAT) tools. These different aspects of the translation profession all come with their own specific challenges, as does the actual translation process. There is far more to it than simply translating words.

It may be useful to refer to a basic and rather neutral definition of the translation process proposed by translation scholar Jeremy Munday. He suggests that the process of translation between two different written languages involves the translator changing an original written text (the source text) into a written text (the target text) in a different verbal language (the target language).

Translation, however, is not simply about a language transfer process and/or about translating word for word. You do, of course, need to know what the words in a text mean. Language competence is a prerequisite for any translator’s work but such competence comes not just from knowing the vocabulary but also from understanding how a specific language presents meaning through distinct rules regulating the construction of grammatical stretches of language. Each language has different ways of organising the world in terms of its grammar and in terms of concepts. To shift from one language to another will involve altering the form and attending to many different elements such as sentence structure. The translator needs to be an interlingual mediator but translation is not uniquely a linguistic activity.

Translation should be seen less as a kind of linguistic recoding and more as a communicative act, with the translator being viewed as an intercultural mediator. As translator and scholar Mary Snell Hornby underlines, ‘We don’t translate languages but texts, and these are an integral part of the world around us, invariably embedded in an extra-linguistic situation and dependent in their specific social and cultural background. The translation is primarily a sociocultural activity which presupposes not only language competence but also extensive factual and encyclopaedic knowledge as well as familiarity with everyday norms and conventions of both source and target culture.’

Translation is a process of intricate complexity in which a text in the source language is taken on a long and eventful journey before it arrives as a text in the target language. On this journey the translator will come up against many challenges, not only linguistically and culturally, but also where the context, style, purpose, new audience and level of equivalence between the source and target text need to be considered. The translator will need to see things from a different perspective and have the ability to think about things differently. The translation journey is complete once all of these elements have been taken into account and a target text, fit for its new audience and purpose, has been produced.

5 thoughts on “What is translation?

    1. It definitely is interesting work. I’m slowly trying to build up a business from scratch. I think it will be easier to attract clients once I have completed my MA in Translation in January. I’m hoping to move to Girona in Spain soon (once someone buys my house) so there should be plenty of potential work for me, fingers crossed! Have you ever thought of going back to studying Spanish? It’s such a beautiful language.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve moved on to French now. Though I’ll never know it as well as I once knew Spanish.

        Girona! We were going to make a day-trip there from our location on the Costa Brave this summer before cv ruined everything. It’s a big road cycling town, so of course the husband couldn’t miss it. Hopefully next year! Good luck selling. We’ve been surprised at how easily some of our neighbors have sold in this climate.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hopefully I’ll get some interest in the house soon. Fingers crossed! And if you’re in Girona next year, give me a shout! Well only if I’ve sold my house and moved there by then, otherwise there’s not much point!

        Liked by 1 person

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