There are plenty of tools that can be utilized to translate text, but knowing which ones to use and when is why you hire a professional.
It’s fairly common for people who are not intimately concerned with language translation to assume that we use a single approach and a single tool – our brains – to perform translation. In other words, I note a tendency to assume that all we do is read something in the source language and then re-write it in the target language. And while this is essentially what we do, there are a surprising number of tools that can be employed in this basic function.
In fact, translation services are the careful selection and application of various techniques, and it often takes years of experience to master the use of these techniques appropriately, because poor judgment can turn any of these tools into weapons that actually hurt your work. Like any other tool, there’s a time and a place and, most importantly, a calibration involved in all of the following translation tools.
Sound & Meaning
Sometimes, in fact, translation doesn’t involve any translation at all:
- Transliteration is when you don’t actually translate something, but approximate it’s sound – usually with proper names that can’t be written in the target alphabet. Instead, you just approximate the sound of the name.
- Borrowing is when a translator decides that it’s more straightforward to simply borrow a word or phrase from the source language. You take the word and simply make it conform to the target language’s rules of form.
- Calque is one of the more subtle tools we use. When you “calque” something you create a new construction in the target language that has the same meaning as the original – for example, in French it is common to translate “Season’s Greetings” from English into fruit de Saison to convey the right sentiment without doing a literal translation.
- Adaptation is a straightforward concept wherein culturally specific imagery and meanings are substituted with appropriate meanings that work in the target language – for example, if a proverb would not make sense in the target culture, it would be adapted.
Sometimes your tools are purely grammatical:
- Transposition is when you translate the words but apply a transformative grammar to it. For example, when bringing words from English to French you often have to change them from singular to plural.
- Modulation refers to an established table of substitutions that are universally recognised when a literal translation isn’t pragmatic. These are generally standardised and get used over and over again by professional translators around the world.
Finally, of course, the go-to tool that almost every translator in the world falls back on is to simply add to the text, bringing in some explanatory and supporting material that clarifies and makes the final product readable, even if it’s not a literal translation any more.
So you see, translators have a large quiver of tools to use – and choosing the right one in the right place is where our experience and training comes into play.