Intercultural Studies Group

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Translation techniques



Preliminary task: 15 minutes
Reading time: 15 minutes
Additional reading: 1 - 1½ hours
Other tasks: 1½ hours
Aim: To provide a way of talking about what we do when we translate; to use this framework to start thinking about how we translate and how we can translate better. 

Preliminary Task

First of all, quickly translate these sentences from English to Spanish (or vice versa). Copy the exercise into a new Word document and type in your translations. You will need them later.

1. "Take five." (i.e. have a short rest)

2. "¿Echamos una siesta después de comer?"

3. "Pisto" (in a menu)

4. "Hay amores que matan" (title of a pesticide catalogue)

5. "I've been living here for about ten years."

6. "Átame" (title of a film by Pedro Almodóvar)

7. "Total Quality Management"

8. "La administración Sandinista llevó a cabo varias reformas en el campo de la sanidad."


As we all know, good translation is not usually just a question of translating each word in turn of the source text into the target language. Nor does it (often) consist, however, of the translator skimming through the source text, putting it aside and then jotting down the general idea of it in his or her own words in the target language. In between the two extremes there is a wide variety of techniques ("strategies"), many of which translators will use intuitively for any given text.

A List

One widely-accepted list of translation techniques is outlined briefly below. If you are interested, there is a more complete description in Fawcett (1997:34-41) - the full reference is at the end of this page.

1. Borrowing

This means taking words straight into another language. Borrowed terms often pass into general usage, for example in the fields of technology ("software") and culture ("punk"). Borrowing can be for different reasons, with the examples below being taken from usage rather than translated texts:

  • the target language has no (generally used) equivalent. For example, the first man-made satellites were Soviet, so for a time they were known in English as "sputniks".
  • the source language word sounds "better" (more specific, fashionable, exotic or just accepted), even though it can be translated. For example, Spanish IT is full or terms like "soft[ware]", and Spanish accountants talk of "overheads", even though these terms can be translated into Spanish. 
  • to retain some "feel" of the source language. For example, from a recent issue of The Guardian newspaper: "Madrileños are surprisingly unworldly."
  • 2. Calque

    This is a literal translation at phrase level. Sometimes calques work, sometimes they don't. You often see them in specialized, internationalized fields such as quality assurance (aseguramiento de calidad, assurance qualité, Qualitätssicherung...).

    3. Literal Translation

    Just what it says - "El equipo está trabajando para acabar el informe" - "The team is working to finish the report". Again, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. For example, the Spanish sentence above could not be translated into French or German in the same way - you would have to use technique no. 4...

    4. Transposition

    This is the mechanical process whereby parts of speech "play musical chairs" (Fawcett's analogy) when they are translated. Grammatical structures are not often identical in different languages. "She likes swimming" translates as "Le gusta nadar" (not "nadando") - or in German, "Sie schwimmt gern", because gerunds and infinitives work in different ways in English and Spanish, and German is German (bringing in an adverb to complicate matters). Transposition is often used between English and Spanish because of the preferred position of the verb in the sentence: English wants the verb up near the front; Spanish can have it closer to the end. 

    5. Modulation

    Now we're getting clever. Slightly more abstract than transposition, this consists of using a phrase that is different in the source and target languages to convey the same idea - "Te lo dejo" - "You can have it".

    6. Reformulation (sometimes known as équivalence)

    Here you have to express something in a completely different way, for example when translating idioms or, even harder, advertising slogans. The process is creative, but not always easy. Would you have given the name Sonrisas y lágrimas to the film The Sound of Music in Spanish?

    7. Adaptation

    Here something specific to the source language culture is expressed in a totally different way that is familiar or appropriate to the target language culture. Sometimes it is valid, and sometimes it is problematic, to say the least. Should a restaurant menu in a Spanish tourist resort translate "pincho" as "kebab" in English? Should a French text talking about Belgian jokes be translated into English as talking about Irish jokes (always assuming it should be translated at all)? We will return to these problems of referentiality below. 

    8. Compensation

    Another model describes a technique known as compensation. This is a rather amorphous term, but in general terms it can be used where something cannot be translated from source to target language, and the meaning that is lost in the immediate translation is expressed somewhere else in the TT. Fawcett defines it as: "...making good in one part of the text something that could not be translated in another". One example given by Fawcett is the problem of translating nuances of formality from languages which use forms such as tu and usted (tu/vous, du/Sie, etc.) into English which only has 'you', and expresses degrees of formality in different ways. If you want to read more, look at Fawcett 1997:31-33.

    A Task: Getting Used to the Terms

    Here are eight sentences, together with a possible translation. Which of the above techniques has been used in each case? The parts of the sentences you should look at are underlined - naturally, translating a whole sentence may well involve more than one of the above techniques. A hint: there is one example of each technique. Type your answers into the Word document you started earlier.

    1. Mi profesor es un cabrón. - My teacher is a bastard. 

    2. His lack of experience is obvious. - Su falta de experiencia es evidente. 

    3. Seguidamente, aflojaremos el tornillo A... - Next, loosen screw A... 

    4. The documents are sent to all departments. - Los documentos se envían a todos los departamentos. 

    5. "Eh, jefe, has llegado tarde," dijó Marta. - "Hey boss, you're late," said Marta, in a deliberately over-familiar way. 

    6. 'Some Like it Hot' - 'Con faldas y a lo loco' 

    7. Prueben nuestra deliciosa paella. - Try our delicious paella. 

    8. Your hard disk will be formatted. - Se dará formato al disco duro. 

    What techniques can you spot in the parts of the sentences that are not underlined?

    Final Task: In Practice

    First, go back to your translations from the preliminary task.

  • Which of the above techniques did you use in each case?
  • What would you improve now, having read the list of techniques above? 
  • Now give examples of some strategies you would use with the following texts (we are looking for a discussion of techniques here, not a translation).

    Text 1: English to Spanish

    As we embark on the second electrical century, a "triple power shock" of technological, economic and environmental trends could potentially push the energy system further towards a more small-scale decentralized model. Some see parallels with recent revolutions in the telecommunications industry, which has been transformed by new technology and deregulation, and in the computer industry, which has been completely realigned by the rapid shift from mainframes to personal computers. In any event, these new "micropower" technologies represent a dramatic departure from the status quo. (S. Dunn, Micropower: The Next Electrical Era, Worldwatch Institute, Washington D.C., 2000.)

    Text 2: Spanish to English

    De acuerdo con lo dispuesto en el artículo 60 de la Ley 30/95, de Ordenación y Supervisión de los Seguros Privados, se informa al asegurado que el control de la actividad Entidad Aseguradora de [XXX] SEGUROS GENERALES, COMPAÑIA DE SEGUROS Y REASEGUROS, S.A., corresponde a la Dirección General de Seguros como organismo administrativo del Estado Español, y que el presente contrato de seguro se rige por lo dispuesto en la Ley 50/1.980, de 8 de octubre, de Contrato de Seguro, modificado por la Ley 30/1.995, de 8 de noviembre, de Ordenación y Supervisión de los Seguros Privados publicada en el Boletín Oficial del Estado de 9 de noviembre de 1.995, así como por cualquier otra norma legal futura de aplicación imperativa y por lo convenido en las CONDICIONES GENERALES y PARTICULARES de este contrato, cuyas cláusulas limitativas de los derechos de los Asegurados son específicamente aceptadas por los mismos, como pacto adicional a las CONDICIONES PARTICULARES. (The first sentence(!) of a document outlining the conditions for an insurance policy, 2000).

    Digging Deeper

    1. Read the piece by Anthony Pym on Two Kinds of Macro-Strategies. This is not an optional reading, although the exercises are.

    2. There are widely-differing models for describing these processes. If you are interested in finding out more about these, you could look at Peter Fawcett, Translation and Language, St. Jerome, Manchester, 1997, especially Chapter 4 on Translation Techniques. This is optional reading.

    The summary above talks about words and phrases, but bear in mind that translation works at different levels - from words and phrases up to the level of the whole text. Gouadec, who ought to know, says that the mark of novice translators is that they only work at the lowest level (words and phrases), so be warned.


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    Researching mediation between cultures
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