What is translation?

This may seem like a silly question, but when you start looking at the details, you realize that the picture isn't black and white. If asked, the average person might say that translation is "the act of converting an utterance from one language to another language." However, this assumes that a particular utterance can be converted to another language in the first place. The first language may have concepts that the second language lacks; even a simple thought experiment makes this clear - how do you translate "computer" to an aboriginal language? Ok, so we need to take a step back and figure out why we are translating in the first place. Maybe someone has written something in one language for a particular purpose, and they want to achieve this same purpose with an audience in another language. Now, the purpose isn't just to convert an utterance, it is to achieve a purpose. With this in mind, translation then becomes "the act of taking an utterance in one language that has a particular purpose, and writing a second utterance in another language to achieve that same purpose." This will mean that some parts of a translation don't look in any way related at first glance. Let's take the example of a formal letter - each language has its own conventions for addressing people. In English, you might say "To Whom it May Concern", whereas in Spanish you might say "Estimados Señores" (= "esteemed gentlemen"). In isolation these don't seem related, but they have achieved the same purpose in their context, so it is a proper translation.

Why can't just any bilingual person translate?

With the context above, we can see that translation involves much more than just trying to convert from one language to another; a translator has to know the purpose of a translation, and write the correct thing in the second language to achieve that purpose. So what does a translator have to know in order to do that successfully?

  1. Comprehension: How to understand the source language and its nuances
  2. Writing ability: How to write in the target language and express nuances
  3. Words and mappings:
    • What words are flexible in their rendering and which are stricter
    • False cognates, cognates with different implications
  4. Research:
    • How to research specialized terminology
    • How to find parallel texts achieving similar purposes
  5. Concept mapping: Strategies for translating concepts that don't map easily between languages
These are the activities that actually make translation difficult; bilingual people don't automatically have any of these abilities. They need to be developed over time with experience, and that is why not anyone can just go and translate.


Original version 2/19/2014. 
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copyright 2014 by Garrett Jones

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