The importance of context in translation

« Understanding is the key to translate », such is the creed of linguists, but what must one understand? Words? Meaning? Understanding a word is of little value if the inherent meaning is misunderstood, yet to understand the intended meaning, one must analyse the context. Hence, one is unable to understand, without context.

It is not enough to grasp only the explicit definition of a word, as definition alone offers us only few semantic possibilities. What must truly be understood and conveyed is the contextualized meaning. The meaning is the cornerstone of an authentic and faithful translation. Understanding the meaning often involves an analysis of various contexts: The immediate verbal context helps to dispel the terms’ polysemy; the broader verbal context allows identifying the meaning of a sentence. Meanwhile, the situational context is crucial to grasp the translator’s purpose. These contexts are essential for both comprehension and translation. Therefore, the translator must cross the language boundaries and conduct verbal communication analysis.

The 2 Key factors of translation: The signified and the meaning.

Translation and interpretation operate at the level of both meaning and signified. Contrary to popular belief, languages cannot be reduced to lists of words that designating things, creatures, principals or concepts, otherwise all the vocabularies would have their identical matches in all other languages and machine translation would have been much more advanced. The very moment we speak of sentences and structure instead of juxtaposition of words, we introduce the idea of meaning; an equation whose result is greater than the sum of it elements, presenting infinite possibilities.

Translation without context

Most professional translators, freelancer or working with a translation agency, have encountered the out of context translation issues. It’s usually about rather simple lists of words seemingly easy to translate (for the customer). Paradoxically, these tasks are the most challenging and the most laborious, because every term was written according to a context, a profession, an activity sector that was, more often than not, kept from the translator. Beyond the drudgery of translating lists of words more time-consuming than translating entire sentences, the margin of error is high because every word to translate has numerous meanings and no indication is provided to make a choice and the chances of an “irrelevant” translation are extremely high.

The Fragmented texts translation

Nowadays, a variety of content is generated and managed online via CMS (Content Management Systems), which doesn’t allow translators (or proof-readers) to work in an appropriate context.

Sometimes, in a French source text for example, translation includes sentence fragments to be later combined on the final interface. These fragments are typically separated by the tool, following a French linguistic structure (subject, verb, complement). Think about the complexity of a German translation, where the verb is frequently divided in two parts and sometimes left to the end of the sentence, particularly in the subordinate clause. The challenge is even greater in languages such as Chinese with it singular structure of sentences, or in Arabic, which is read right to left. In other languages, the rules of accordance are even more complex, impacting both nouns and verbs. How to, for example, manage the unknown variable noun agreement?

To that, we can add the notion of “text expansion and contraction”, describing the difference of sentence length from one language to another. For example, the French translation of an English sentence would be longer than the source sentence. This issue is well-known in the subtitling field but is usually neglected in website or application localisation.

How to translate context-less word lists

The translation of context-less word lists requires either seeking clarification for each term with the client, which is simply impossible for websites containing product databases covering several sectors, or, leading post-translation verification to the in situ translated texts, i.e, in their context. Either way, it’s essential to notify the client of the risks related to this type of translation.

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