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 Translation Theory  
   Some key terms in translation theory


Communication is the transfer of an intended message, and this is the purpose of language itself. Obviously, this process can be divided into two broad stages: transmission (speaking, writing) and reception (listening, reading).

But there are another two stages: before transmission, formulating the message accurately (coherence) and after reception, understanding the message accurately (assimilation). These sound like simple processes, yet in fact they are not: for example, how often do we really have the patience to listen closely to what someone else is telling us?


Consecutive Interpreting:
The interpreter starts to translate only after the speaker has finished his/her utterance. Often used at smaller conferences etc., generally used in courtroom settings, speeches. Just one interpreter is often enough.

A mother tongue formed from the contact of a European language (esp. English, French, or Portuguese) with another (esp. African) language. (OED)

1. A form of speech peculiar to a particular region.

2. A subordinate variety of a language with non-standard vocabulary, pronunciation, or grammar. (OED)

The interpreter is posted beside the client and in real time discretely 'whispers' his/her translation of the speech activity.

Modes of speaking and writing which involve participants in adopting a particular attitude towards areas of socio-cultural activity (e.g. racist discourse, officialese, etc.). (DaL)


Discourse Analysis:
In this context, the study of meaning using a large unit of translation, e.g. paragraph or page level, and taking into account the widest possible context.

Discourse Markers:
Words such as 'good', 'but', uh-huh', 'well' that divide up (and also link) sections of speech.

Optimum achievement of a communicative goal. (DaL)

Achievement of a communicative goal in the most economic manner possible. Language users normally counterbalance effectiveness and efficiency in order to achieve maximum effect from minimum use of resources. (DaL)

Free Translation:
Translating loosely from the original. Contrasted with word for word or literal translation, this may be the best method depending on the most appropriate unit of translation involved.

Globalization addresses the business issues associated with taking a product global. In the globalization of high-tech products this involves integrating localization throughout a company, after proper internationalization and product design, as well as marketing, sales, and support in the world market.


All languages have particular ways of showing politeness (e.g. French tu/vous, Spanish tu/usted, Japanese yomu/yomi-masu). (Aol)

Features of language variation characteristic of an individual speaker: basically, everyone has a unique way of talking.

A change in the form of (a word) to express tense, gender, number, mood, etc. (OED)

Internationalization is the process of generalizing a product so that it can handle multiple languages and cultural conventions without the need for re-design. Internationalization takes place at the level of program design and document development.

Interpreting can be defined as the translation of speech orally, as opposed to translation of written texts. (OED)

It requires special skills (note taking, summarizing, language skills), a good memory, sheer mental stamina and, often, arduous training. 

A number of national and international organizations govern the profession, while the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights entitles every defendant in a criminal trial to have the assistance of an interpreter, if necessary.

There are several types of interpreting: simultaneous, consecutive, liaison

Simultaneous interpreting:

The interpreter starts to translate before the speaker has finished his/her utterance. Most often used at large events such as conferences and carried out by panels of at least two interpreters using special equipment. As this type of work is particularly tiring and stressful, the rule of thumb is that an interpreter should be able to take a break after 45 minutes of continuous work.

Liaison interpreting:

A generic name for business interpreting; also just interpreting for trade conventions and other general business situations. Usually refers to the activities of a single interpreter who accompanies an individual or delegation around.

Consecutive interpreting:

The interpreter starts to translate only after the speaker has finished his/her utterance. Often used at smaller conferences etc., generally used in courtroom settings, speeches. Just one interpreter is often enough.


1. The method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in an agreed way. (OED)

2. The distinctive form of speech of a particular community, most or all of which is unintelligible to outsiders.

Language Family:
A set of languages that can be shown to derive from a common root. (AoL) (e.g. Indo-European, Austronesian)

Language Type:
According to their word structure (morphology), languages can be divided into four basic types:

1. Isolating: each element is an independent word without inflections (Chinese and Vietnamese)

2. Agglutinating: elements combine without changing their form to express compound ideas (Japanese, German)

3. Inflectional: the boundaries between morphemes are fuzzy, and morphemes can express more than one grammatical meaning at a time (Latin, Russian) (AoL)

4. Polysynthetic: several morphemes are put together to form complex words which can function as a whole sentence (Chukchi) (AoL)


Legal Translation:
Legal translation is a distinct specialty.

What skills does it need? 

Done well, it requires a variety of advanced skills to be present in the translator: first, complete mastery of both source and target languages; second, a good knowledge of the two legal systems involved; third, knowledge of the relevant sub-areas of law; fourth, an awareness of any other relevant disciplines and subject matter, ( e.g. steel making, if the documents of a case concern a steelworks); fifth, training in the art of translation itself.  It's clear that it's not easy to find such a combination of skills, especially as they are not acquired quickly -- either on their own or collectively.

All this reflects the unique nature of legal language. 

As the noted language authority, David Crystal puts it:

"Legal language shares with science a concern for coherence and precision; and it shares with religion a respect for ritual and historical tradition"

"Legal language has always been pulled in different directions. Its statements have to be so phrased that we can see the general applicability, yet be specific enough to apply to individual circumstances. They have to be stable enough to stand the test of time, so that cases will be treated consistently and fairly, yet flexible enough to adapt to new social situations. Above all, they have to be expressed in such a way that people can be certain about the intention of the law respecting their rights and duties. No other variety of language has to carry such a responsibility.'

When referring to legal English, he states:

"Legal English has several subvarieties, reflecting its different roles. For example, there is the language of legal documents, such as contracts, deeds, insurance policies, wills and many kinds of regulation. There is the language of works of legal reference, with the complex apparatus of footnotes and indexing. There is the language of case law, made out of the spoken or written decisions which judges make about individual cases. There is the spoken language of the courtroom, with the ritual courtesies of judges, counsel and court officials and constraints governing what counts as evidence and what may or may not be said. Legal language is unique in the way utterances are subject to sanctions, such as a fine or imprisonment for linguistic contempt of court.

A fundamental distinction separates the language of the Legislature÷which institutes a legal text and the language of the judiciary which interprets and applies that text. A pivotal role is played by set of constitutional statements statutes (Acts), and other documents which come from the Legislature. In these cases, the words, literally are law." (CoL)

We do legal translation well!


1. Words, vocabulary.

2. The total stock of words in a language. (OED)

Liaison Interpreting:
A generic name for business interpreting; also just interpreting for trade conventions and other general business situations. Usually refers to the activities of a single interpreter who accompanies an individual or delegation around.

Localization involves taking a product and making it linguistically and culturally appropriate to the target locale (country/region and language) where it will be used and sold.
Translation is only one of the activities in localization; in addition to translation, a localization project includes many other tasks such as project management, software engineering, testing, and desktop publishing. (PGL)
More: Download Localization Tools | Intro on Localization
Buy Bert Esselink's excellent book on localization
Amazon US | Amazon UK

Machine Translation:
Machine translation (MT) is automatic translation, in which a computer takes over all the work of translating. Obviously, a computer will work much faster (and is cheaper) than a human being. It can be a useful method if the purpose of the translation is a limited one; for example, to gain a rough idea of what a text contains ('gisting') and/or to process large numbers of documents very rapidly.

MT works best on highly repetitive texts, involving a restricted range of vocabulary. Typically, these are highly intricate scientific or technical texts. It does less well on more general or varied texts, and those involving a high degree of abstraction, and with these often yields useless results. The problem here is that it fails to cope with speech acts.

Even on repetitive texts, the finished output often needs to be checked to by a human translator, and varying degrees of post-editing might be necessary.

Another factor is the source language - target language pair. MT works best also where languages are of a similar type (isolating: English - Spanish) or related (German - English) or closely related (Norwegian - Danish). At the time of writing, the obvious advantage of using MT to translate from one dialect to another in the same language (e.g. US English - British English) seems to have been overlooked but, using the same logic, it should work well on this.

It has been suggested that, sooner or later, computers will make all human translators redundant. We believe that this will never happen. The complexity of language mirrors the infinite subtlety of the human mind. To put it differently, human translators will be replaced only once computers are developed that can write good poetry.

However, MT technology is improving all the time. Many well-funded R&D programs are going on around the world right now and it constitutes an exciting area of translation research, especially when combined with other technologies, such as speech recognition and natural language processing. It is likely that, over time, this research will gradually extend the boundaries within which MT can operate.

To use MT software to process large batches of documents, several problems need to be overcome. First, you need to get the original text into a form the computer can read. Unless you are lucky enough to have it all in the form of word processor files already, it will have to be scanned and then put through an optical character recognition (OCR) process. This will convert the documents into word processor files, typically in Microsoft Word format. It would be a big mistake, though, to underestimate the amount of time, effort and expense this process involves; so much so, that it is often cheaper and quicker to just to get the work done manually.

More: Articles & Software on Machine Translation, and free on-line Machine Translation.


Machine-Aided Translation:
If you can't replace the human mind when translating, the next best thing is to speed it up. In recent years, general technological advances have revolutionized the translation industry. Starting with the humble fax machine, and moving through the introduction of email and word processing right through to reliable dictation software, the computer is now the translator's the main working tool.

In recognition of this, a range of specialized software tools have been developed to enhance the skills of human linguists. The most obvious one is computerized dictionaries, encyclopedias and term banks, which can be consulted either off a CD ROM or over the Internet. The fruits of many years work by panels of outstanding academic minds are now available in a split second. This innovation has both accelerated and improved the translator's achievement of semantic accuracy.

Not to be forgotten are translation memory programs. These use complex algorithms to perform the apparently simple task of remembering words and phrases that may have been translated from a particular language before. By giving the translator the option to accept or reject suggested translations, the tedium and potential inaccuracy involved in translating repetitive texts can often be largely eliminated. Speed is of course also enhanced. However, these programs have the disadvantages that they require some significant amount of routine maintenance, and also, the source text must first be available in the form of a word processor file.


The extent to which text producers and receivers feed their own beliefs into their processing of a given text. (DaT)

A meaningful morphological unit of a language that cannot be further divided (e.g. in, come, -ing, forming incoming). (OED)

The system of forms in a language.

Natural Language Processing:
NLP systems interpret written rather than spoken language. In fact, NLP modules can be found in speech processing systems that start by converting spoken input into text. Using lexicons and grammar rules. NLP parses sentences, determines underlying meanings, and retrieves or constructs responses. This technology's main use is to enable databases to answer queries entered in the form of a question. And newer application is handling high-volume e-mail. NLP performance can be improved by incorporating a commonsense knowledge base -- that is, the encyclopedia of real-world rules. (Wired Magazine)

A simplified language containing vocabulary from two or more languages, used for communication between people not having a common language.(OED)


The tendency to pattern language behavior in relatinon to a particular type of activity, level of formality, etc. (e.g. colloquial, legal, scientific, religious) (DaT)

The branch of linguistics concerned with meaning. (OED)

Simultaneous Interpreting:
The interpreter starts to translate before the speaker has finished his/her utterance. Most often used at large events such as conferences and carried out by panels of at least two interpreters using special equipment. As this type of work is particularly tiring and stressful, the rule of thumb is that an interpreter should be able to take a break after 45 minutes of continuous work.

Source Text:
The language from which translation or interpreting is carried out.

Speech Act:
The action which is intended in the utterance of a sentence. Speech acts may be direct (e.g. Get out!) or indirect (e.g. it's hot in here = Open a window).(DaL) How often do we say exactly what we really mean? This is one of the things that most often fools computers performing machine translation.


Speech Community:
The group of people sharing a language or dialect.

A list of characters representing syllables and (in some languages or stages of writing) serving the purpose of an alphabet. (OED) (e.g. in Japanese - hiragana and katakana)

Target Text:
The language into which translation or interpreting is carried out.

Telephone Interpreting:
Interpreting carried out over the phone, using a three-way calling phone patch. Also with video-conferencing.

The relationship between addresser and addressee, as reflected in use of language (e.g. level of formality, relative distance). (DaL)


Text Act:
The dominant speech act in a text. (DaL)

Tone Languages:
Languages that use pitch to distinguish words, either by meaning or grammatical function (e.g. Chinese, Thai) (AoL)

The transfer of meaning from one language to another. Translation takes place in writing and interpreting is its oral counterpart. The two terms are often confused. At its best, a successful translation should read as if it were originally written in the new language.

We believe translating is an art, not a science. You might get the impression that it's a mechanical process involving a box with a handle. All you need to do is turn the handle on the side of the box, and out comes the translation.

This is wrong.

Recent academic research has shown that translating from one language to another is one of the most complex higher order activities of the human brain. In fact, your wrong impression may be evidence of a good translation: great skill will often make an exceptional achievement look easy.

The translation method is dictated by the purpose of the translation. While the best translations will always be performed primarily by a human being, in some (limited) situations, machine translation can be a useful technique, and this is likely to increase in importance over time as this technology evolves.

Translation Memory:
A translation memory is database where a translator may record (usually semi-automatically) old translations for future reuse and easy searches. Although these programs are best classified under computer-aided/assisted translation, one must not confuse them with machine translation programs - translation memory software does not translate anything by itself, whereas a machine translation system actively produces language and translations based on linguistic data, such as grammatical rules and glossaries.
More: Download Translation Memory Tools


Unit Of Translation:
The smallest entity in a text that carries a discrete meaning. It varies all the time, ranging from individual words through phrases and sentences right up to entire paragraphs.

Whistled Speech:
A system of communication using set whistles and tones.

Word Order:
Arrangement of words in a sentence. There are some distinct, recognized patterns:

SVO - 'cows eat grass' - English, Finnish, Chinese, Swahili

SOV - ' cows grass eat' - Hindi/Urdu, Turkish, Japanese, Korean

VSO - 'eat cows grass' - Classical Arabic, Welsh, Samoan. (AoL)

The similarity of word order patterns between source and target languages is a factor in the relative ease of translation - or otherwise - between them.


Word-For-Word Translation:
Transferring the meaning of each individual word in a text to another, equivalent word in the target language. Sometimes called 'Literal Translation'. While this is clearly appropriate for dictionaries, it can produce very for complex passages of text. See 'Unit of translation'.

World Knowledge:
Whatever extra-linguistic or real-world factors are brought into the translation process in the mind of the translator. We are starting to see this introduced into the newest machine translation technology research projects. Also called 'shared assumptions' or 'real-world knowledge'.







Discourse and the Translator

Basil Hatim and Ian Mason



Oxford English Dictionary (on CD-ROM) E. S. Weiner (ed) Oxford University Press


The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language

David Crystal

Cambridge University Press


The Atlas of Languages

Comrie, Mathews and Polinsky

Facts on File Inc.

PGL A Practical Guide to Localization Bert Esselink John Benjamins
Translatum Greek & English Bibliography on Translation & Interpretation
More books on Translation & Interpretation by Amazon
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