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Translation Toolkit

Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages


2. Translation as a Product

So far we have dealt with the process of translation; but a translation can also be viewed as a product of this process. In that sense it can be seen as bearing a relationship of proximity or distance from the source text.

Compare the following example, which presents literal and free translations of a stock Chinese conversation between two strangers:

Literal Free
Sir, are you well? How do you do?
-- Are you well? -- Pleased to meet you.
Sir comes from where? Do you come here often?
-- I come from Britain -- No, this is my first visit.
How many persons in your family? Nice weather for the time of year
-- Wife and children. And you? -- Yes, it's been quite warm lately.

The literal translation sounds too formal in the target language, English, by using the honorific title Sir. Also the kind of polite questions exchanged vary a great deal from those used at a first meeting between speakers of English, and might even be regarded as too personal, and therefore rather rude.

The literal translation is source-language biased, and the free translation is target-language biased. How free or literal a translation or target text (hereafter TT) needs to be a matter for careful consideration since there are arguments in favour of each approach. The decision often depends to some degree on who the target audience is likely to be, and the purpose of the translation. If we take the examples above, the literal translation might be more helpful for a student of linguistics who wishes to compare the politeness levels of strangers meeting for the first time across a range of languages. The free translation would work better in a novel intended for a general reader with very little knowledge of everyday life in China. A student learning conversational Chinese might only need to know the culturally equivalent sense of the phrases he or she uses, but a student of culture would be likely to be aware of both the literal and the free sense. Cultural issues in translation will be the main focus of Section 4: Cultural Issues in Translation: Calque.

It may be useful to consider the relationship of source text (hereafter ST) to TT as a sliding scale:


Sliding Scale

For example, one student reporting the reaction of her supervision partner to an anthology of short stories in Italian, remarks: Le piace molto la novella del Boccaccio.


To her pleases much the story of the Boccaccio.

Interlineal translation is not represented on the sliding scale, above, and is a form of extreme source language (SL) bias. It conveys the literal level of the words, and attempts to represent the SL's syntax. It is typically used by linguists to discuss structure and syntactical difference, and is a highly technical practice seldom undertaken by the majority of translators.


The story of Boccaccio pleases her greatly.

Literal translation uses the literal level of the words, but respects the TL's use of syntax. The adoption of TL grammar produces a translation that may be appropriate in some contexts, but which sounds too formal and, in this case, slightly stilted. Some people might describe it as 'tranlationese', and it is an example of calque, discussed in Section 4: Cultural Issues in Translation.


She likes the story by Boccaccio very much.

Faithful translation takes account of the literal level of the words, and also respects the TL's use of syntax. Here there is a necessary degree of grammatical transposition: some of the ST parts of speech and grammatical categories are altered to fit in better with TL expectations. Here, the impersonal becomes an active, 'She likes', the possessive, 'of..', is replaced with 'by'. This translation is more plausible, given the context, than the literal translation but it is still a little formal.


She really likes the Boccaccio story.

In the balanced translation, two further grammatical transpositions are made: the phrase 'very much' is replaced with the single adverb 'really', following the pronoun 'she'. The possessive has been removed. There are a number of grammatical transpositions but they are all unremarkable and acceptable: it is more convincing in the context than the two more SL-biased TTs.


She's mad about the Boccacio

The idiomatizing translation respects the ST message content but tends to use TL idioms (fixed figurative expressions whose meanings cannot be deduced from the literal meaning; i.e. football is not my cup of tea). Idiomatizing is not wholly synonymous with idiomatic; the faithful and balanced TTs (above) are idiomatic but not idiomatizing.


She thinks the Boccaccio's ace.

Free translation respects the ST's message content. This example is also heavily idiomatizing.

It is essential to note that the degrees of freedom are quite fluid: all are open to query, and other TTs could always be suggested. Context often determines what the optimal translation may be. As with gist translation and exegetical rephrasing it is tempting to imagine an ideal mid-point which adds and omits nothing but differences in form of expression and cultural content mean that this is almost impossible. There may be instances in which there is very little choice at all, such as with SL idioms, proverbs of fossilized expressions; for example:

  • No entry
  • Senso vietato
  • Prohibido el paso
  • Kein Eintritt

Come up with a list of TTs for the following expressions, and consider their place on the TL-SL scale, discussed above:

  • That's another kettle of fish
  • One swallow doesn't make a summer
  • Lost property
  • Don't mention it
  • Thick as a brick
  • Two's company.
  • You can't teach an old dog new tricks