What Is Translation? A Simple Guide to Translation

Chidinma Egwuogu
05 Jan 2024

9 min. read


Translated content is something as simple yet essential as the multilingual user manual that comes with your new phone. Or the subtitles on a foreign movie. Translation is everywhere, often unnoticed but always vital.

In this article, we'll get into what translation means, detail its main types, and explain why it’s important for businesses.

Pro tip: Streamline your translation process using a professional localization management platform—Centus.

What is translation?

What is translation? Translation is the conversion of text from one language to another. It goes beyond mere word replacement to also convey the same message in the same way. To this end, translators consider the cultural, social, and situational elements that shape how a message is understood in the source and target languages.

For instance, a joke that's hilarious in one language might be incomprehensible or offensive in another, if not properly translated.

Types of translation

The main types of translation are:

  • Audiovisual translation
  • Technical translation
  • Literary translation
  • Legal translation
  • Medical translation
  • Document translation
  • Business translation
  • Website translation
  • Marketing translation
  • Direct translation

Here's a simple rundown of these translation types:

Audiovisual translation

This includes subtitles and dubbing for films and TV shows. This translation example involves syncing the translation with the audio and visual elements of the video. It also involves fitting translations into the stipulated character limits for subtitles.

Technical translation

This is the translation of technical materials, such as manuals, product specifications, or technical reports. The umbrella term of technical translation also subsumes scientific translation dealing with scientific papers, research articles, and theses. It requires knowledge of specialized terms and the ability to communicate complex concepts clearly.

Literary translation

This type of translation deals with translating novels, poems, plays, and other forms of literature. The translator must capture the author's voice and style, which can be particularly challenging due to cultural and linguistic nuances.

Legal translation

This involves converting legal documents like contracts, patents, and court papers from one language to another. This type of translation requires a deep understanding of legal terminology and the legal systems of both the source and target languages. Accuracy is another critical factor here, as small mistakes can have big legal implications.

Medical translation

This covers translating medical documents like clinical studies, research papers, patient records, and pharmaceutical data. This form of translation is challenging because it requires precision and an expert knowledge of medical terminology. Accuracy is also important in medical translation (as with all translation types) due to the potential impact on health and safety.

Document translation

This involves converting written documents from one language to another. It's a common type of translation that covers anything from business reports to birth certificates. The challenge here is accuracy and understanding the specific terminology used in these documents. Another challenge is ensuring the translation is accurate and maintains the original document's format and intent.

Business translation

Used for business documents like reports, presentations, and correspondence. It requires an understanding of business jargon and the corporate culture of both the source and target languages.

Website translation

Website translation involves adapting a website's content, design, and functionality for different language-speaking audiences. The process includes translating all written content, adjusting the layout to accommodate text flow in different languages, and sometimes altering visual elements to suit cultural preferences.

Marketing translation

This type of translation involves adapting promotional materials for different markets. These promotional materials may include advertisements, brochures, and social media content for different cultural contexts. The aim of marketing translation is to engage the target audience while keeping the brand's message consistent and compelling.

Translation techniques

To translate a text for a specific audience, a translator applies one or several translation techniques. Their choice depends on the type of source text, knowledge domain, language pair, and cultural context. Generally, translation techniques fall into two categories: literary and non-literary translation.

Direct translation techniques

Direct translation techniques help create translations closely resembling the source text. Such techniques are most suitable for technical translation.

  • Borrowing is the use of source language words in the target language. This technique is a common source of expanding scientific terminology.
  • Neologisms are newly invented linguistic expressions and words. Neologisms include calques, loan translations, semantic loans, coinages, and lexicalization of abbreviations and acronyms. Neologisms are regularly used in technical translation in the absence of suitable target language terms. An example is the coinage of the German word “kontaktlinsen” to translate “contact lenses.”
  • Circumlocution is the use of additional words to translate a word absent in a target language. A case in point is the German word “katauto” translated as “cat car.” Note that circumlocution is used to fill linguistic gaps and, hence, doesn’t fall in the category of indirect translation.
  • Literal translation is word-for-word translation to preserve the verbatim meaning of the source text. Literal translation is the most suitable technique for the language pairs belonging to the same family.

Indirect (oblique) translation techniques

Indirect or oblique translation techniques come in handy when the meaning of source text cannot be conveyed using direct methods. Although it might seem that the translator has more creative freedom using indirect translation techniques, they are used to exert stricter control over the target text.

  • Transposition is the replacement of parts of speech. The technique is most commonly applied for the translation of poetry, where verbs can be replaced with nouns.
  • Modulation is the use of different phrases to convey the same message. Modulation is employed to create natural-sounding translations. For example, passive structures can be modulated into active structures.
  • Reformulation (equivalence) is the recreation of the source text using the target language varying in style and structure. Reformulation is frequently applied to translate idioms, exclamations, and expletives. For example, the Polish word “Au” is commonly translated as “Ouch.”
  • Adaptation is tailoring the source expression to the target culture. Adaptation is rarely used as it affects the ideas in the source text.

Note: Transcreation is a portmanteau term formed by combining the words “translation” and “creation.” It’s not a separate translation technique, but rather a standalone process of creative content reimagining. Transcreation is most commonly applied in marketing.

Translation approaches

When considering how to approach translation, it's important to consider the content type and the target audience. For instance, legal or technical documents often require the precision of human translation, while general informational content may be suitable for machine translation or a hybrid approach.

The choice of method (human, machine, or hybrid) depends on the project's needs, and would involve balancing factors like accuracy, context, cultural nuances, and time constraints.

Human translation

This involves skilled translation scholars manually converting the text into the target language. The advantage of human translation is the ability to accurately convey context, cultural nuances, and subtleties. However, it can be time-consuming. The downside can be time and cost, as human translation is generally more time-consuming and expensive than machine translation.

Machine translation

You can use tools like Google Translate and DeepL to automatically convert text from one language to another. While faster and more cost-effective, machine translation can sometimes lack accuracy, particularly with idiomatic expressions and complex sentences.

Hybrid approach (Machine Translation Post-Editing)

This combines both methods. First, a machine translates the text, and then a human translator reviews and edits the machine's output. Machine translation post-editing balances speed with accuracy.

Translation technologies

Translation technologies are software solutions meant to simplify and streamline the translation process.

Computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools

Computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools are specialized software that facilitate the translation process by incorporating various advanced features like:

  • Translation memory (TM) stores previously translated segments. When similar or identical phrases appear in new projects, the TM suggests these stored translations. This helps improve consistency and speed.
  • Term base a specialized database that maintain approved translations of key terms, and ensure that specific terminology is used consistently across all translations. It is different from a translation memory because it not only provides the translation in the target language but also the context of the translation. It is more detailed.
  • Quality assurance tools automatically review translations for potential errors, such as inconsistencies or missed translations. We’ll explore this further below.

Translation management systems (TMS)

TMS platforms are essential for coordinating large-scale translation projects. They streamline project management by integrating various translation tools and platforms. They also provide tools for workflow automation, allowing for the efficient assignment and tracking of tasks. TMS features often include centralized storage, project management functionalities, and collaborative environments for team members.

Translation quality assurance

Translation quality assurance is a systematic process of verifying that a translation meets the defined standards of accuracy, clarity, and appropriateness for the intended audience. Quality assurance is critical in translation, not just for the words but for the entire message and style too. Small mistakes can have big consequences, especially when you are dealing with highly technical materials.

Translation quality assurance helps you:

  • Preserve the original text's meaning and tone.
  • Maintain consistency across multiple translations.
  • Adapt the source content to fit cultural expectations.
  • Uphold your brand's voice and style guidelines.

You can ensure good translation quality by following these clear steps:

  • Set clear requirements: Define what high quality means for your project with detailed explanations. Provide translators with clear instructions and background information to help them understand context and expectations.
  • Use glossaries: Maintain consistency with a list of approved terms, especially for technical content.
  • Use QA tools: Use software that can spot common errors from spelling to layout issues.
  • Check for politeness: Adjust the translation's formality to suit the cultural norms of the target audience.
  • Multiple reviews: Have different linguists review the content for a well-rounded assessment.
  • Cultural review: Ensure the translation respects and accurately represents the target culture.

All in all, a robust QA process should ordinarily involve multiple rounds of checks by linguists and the use of automated tools to catch any errors.

What is translation context and why does it matter?

Translation context refers to all the information that contributes to the meaning and interpretation of a text, beyond just the words themselves. Context is important because it helps you preserve the undertone and actual meaning of the original message during translation. Without context, it’s often impossible to create high-quality translations.

There are 3 main types of translation context:

  • Visual context: Includes images, symbols, and layout, which can change the meaning of the translated text.
  • Linguistic context: These are surrounding words and sentences that influence the meaning of specific phrases or terms.
  • Situational context: This includes cultural, social, historical, and geographical aspects impacting interpretation.

Providing some or all of the context types above will ultimately lead to translations that are not just literal, but meaningful and appropriate for the intended audience.

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