Translation – in a Word

Part of the reason why there is so much debate over whether translation is an art, science or craft stems from the fact that there is no real accurate definition of the concept. What is translation? Can it be accurately defined? There are articles, theses and books which attempt to explain the concept of translation but they all effectively blur the picture as they enumerate a whole host of processes that are said to be a part of translation but fail to get to the core of what translation is.

As an exercise in mental dexterity in an effort to limit one’s mental manoeuvrability and force one to choose a constrained (and therefore necessarily concise) definition of translation, two four-word lists are given below. The exercise hinges on the fact that the reader is forced to choose ONE word from the first list and ONE word from the second list and then to compare his/her choices. This should give the reader an idea what he/she understands by the term ‘translation’. What is more, comparing one’s results with other people tells us whether there is general agreement to what translation is or whether it is a more personal activity.

List One


Second List


The exercise makes no claims to be the best method of defining translation, however, it does allow us to re-evaluate our own understanding of the concept and perhaps the general view of translation. What does the exercise give? As with every definition, it seeks to explore the core of what lies behind a given concept. With each of the lists, we are forced to rank the definitions and make a decision concerning what is most important to us in translation. By working with two lists, we are led to examine the relationship between our two choices and are then led to consider taking one more step, to fill the gap, in a process of what might be called mental triangulation. Does our definition of translation lie with one of these two choices or is a third word necessary?


22 thoughts on “Translation – in a Word

  1. imho to translate is first and foremost to understand. but to interpret implies understanding, which is why i chose “to interpret” in the first poll.

    in the second poll i chose transfer because that’s what translation mainly is – a transfer of meanings which exist totally independently from the constraints of languages, really.

  2. I think that in case of translation there is no one and proper answer as it is an individual matter. People will focus on different aspects and will find different qualities more or less important. For some, translating will be more like interpreting even if it means being too subjective and putting too much of their own perspective into the final text while some will focus on accuracy even if the translation then loses spirit and lacks flow. The whole art of translation is to find balance between those two, I think.

      1. You write: “If translation is individual, why on earth do we study it?”

        Two supplementary questions:
        If writing is creative, why do we learn to spell?
        If everything about translation can be taught, why not get computers to do it all?

        Teaching is not ONLY passing on the knowledge and skills of the teacher. It ALSO involves activating the gifts of the learner and creating a setting in which these gifts can develop. A good teacher does not produce clones, he/she equips creative personalities with a certain skill set and fully expects the best learners to practice their “art” in a different way than the teacher.
        People are individuals. I translate in a different way to you. I also eat, drink, walk, run and sleep differently. I perceive and act differently in many ways.

  3. Not sure about Corabas, but I would pick all of them at different times, depending on things such as my recollections from my most recent job, the mood of the moment, ideas stuck in my mind from discussions elsewhere etc.

    I selected 2 a week ago, and I THINK they were “render” and “translocate”. What helps me to remember is not so much the content of the words themselves, but the fact that the results statistics show that I am with the majority on one and with the minority on the other.

    You could blame my advancing years for this transcience of memory, but I agree with Corabas – all of the words are involved in what I do (to different extents in different jobs), so there is no single best description of my work in either group.

      1. Because I am transporting the content of a text that is set in one culture into another culture. It depends on the type of job, of course, but sometimes I have to use imagery or concepts which are not directly included in the source text.

        One example related to the previous thread (Bible translation) would be the phrase “the lamb that takes away the sin of the world”. How would you deal with that phrase in a tribal language that has no word for lamb and no idea of what the animal may be like or the associations that it brings up in the source culture? All you can do is analyse what message the phrase conveys, then put that message into words that the target culture can understand.

        Or, if you translate from (British) English, how would you deal with the term “party wall surveyor”? England has specific legislation to deal with work in or around a building which affects the dividing line between two properties, and the party wall surveyor is an independent expert who applies this legislation to the individual case – this surveyor is appointed by the owner of the building, but he/she acts as an independent expert bound by the law and not by the wishes of the client. If I had to translate this term into German, I would need to explain some of the implications in a way that Germans could understand (i.e. “translocate” the concepts involved). Simply translating the words themselves would in most cases not be sufficient, because they do not have any meaningful equivalent in the target culture.

      2. Fair question. I suppose I thought of the culture as being geographically based, so the image of transporting the ideas (i.e. “trans-locating” them) came into my mind.

        Question in return: do you think that there is a right answer to each of your word quartets, and that it should be possible to justify each choice with cast-iron reasoning?

  4. Victor,
    Many thanks for the speedy and great response. I like this image a lot, that of ‘translocation’. Very visually stimulating.

    As for your question, no, I do not think there is any fixed ‘correct’ answer. The whole point of the exercise, as mentioned above, is to mull over what translation is for each of us (and all of us) and perhaps reach a defining term through ‘triangulation’. Does it make sense? I do not know but it has certainly helped me and my translation trainees.

    1. You write: “perhaps reach a defining term through ‘triangulation’”.
      My gut reaction is: No way!
      There is no single best practice for translation, no “theory to rule all theories”. In a sense, every translation is pragmatic.

      Oh well, back to work.
      I’m currently translating a couple of rather hefty inter-company contracts, and even in jobs like this it is important to translate with a human touch and not get too mechanical. Sure, some terms need to be consistent throughout (e.g. Client and Contractor), but other terms need to be translated differently in different contacts (e.g. the wonderful German word “Bestand”), the syntax often needs to be turned around, and there are certain stylistic elements that I need to adapt to my own liking.

      1. I even hesitate with “A” defining term.
        I accept descriptive terms (and all 8 terms in your word quartets describe aspects of translation).
        But a “definition” is by definition definitive and restrictive.

        Or to use your triangulation imagery:
        If I start from your two word quartets and calculate the number of possible combinations (4×4 = 16), that gives me at least 16 starting points, even before I have started to define (ouch!) what a triangulation point is in this context.

  5. Fascinating exercise – always good to step back and evaluate how we see our own work. I think, like Victor, that all the terms are relevant at different times in the process of translation. I chose “render” in the first list because my experience is most recently as a literary translator, so there is an artistic liberty (though I tend to aim for the literal) inherent in my experience that “render” hints at. In the second I chose “transfer” because my goal isn’t to “transform” the work but to preserve its significance – a transference of significance even if the form or meaning isn’t always directly “transposed” or “translocated.”

    1. Erica,
      Thank you for the comment. If you chose “render” and “transfer”, what third definition can be ‘triangulated’ here? What do render and transfer have in common? What don’t they have in common?

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