Understanding how to translate: Technique types that experts use

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If you aren’t involved in the translation field, you might think of translation as a straightforward task – simply exchanging words in one language for the same words in another. Sometimes that works well, like using ‘agua’ to say ‘water’ in Spanish. However, this type of direct-translate technique doesn’t usually work well because languages are different.

When you translate, technique is important

Some languages have only a few verb tenses and others have many. Some use complicated grammar structures for formal situations, but others (like English) do not. And every language has unique words that are hard to express in other languages. 

What happens when you need to communicate words or phrases that don’t exist in the target language? When you translate, technique styles for handling these issues must be used correctly. It’s crucial to know these techniques, and in this article, we explain the 7 translation techniques that experts use most often.

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7 translation techniques: The basics

For those who translate, technique types are split into two groups: direct and indirect translation. The main idea behind this distinction is that direct translation involves some form of word-for-word substitution, whereas an indirect translation technique involves some type of change to the text. 

Direct translation techniques

1. Borrowing

All languages incorporate words from other languages, and over time they become part of everyday speech. For instance, in English, ‘ballet’ (from French) and ‘karaoke’ (from Japanese) are now commonly used.

In translation work, ‘borrowing’ refers to maintaining a word from the original language in the translation. You need to know when it is and isn’t appropriate to use. Take the phrase ‘I’m telling you not to go there. Capisce?’ 

If you decide that it makes more sense for the tone and context to keep ‘Capisce’ rather than use ‘Do you understand?’ or some similar variation, you are using the technique of borrowing. 

2. Calque

This direct-translate technique is like borrowing, except that the words are translated literally. This process also happens naturally in languages, such as Spanish adopting ‘mouse’ (ratón) to refer to a computer mouse and English taking ‘beer garden’ from the German word ‘biergarten’.

Using this technique correctly requires deep knowledge of the target language’s vocabulary and current use. Does ‘remote control’ mean ‘control remoto’ in Spanish? Be careful! 

3. Literal translation

This strict, word-for-word translation technique works well for simple sentences, especially when the two languages have similar structures, syntax and cultural terminology. For example, ‘I want a glass of water’ becomes ‘Quiero un vaso de agua’ in Spanish. Easy, right? 

The problem is that this technique is not useful in most cases. Consider ‘I miss you’. This idea exists in every culture and language, and it’s a simple grammatical structure. So, it must be simple to translate into Spanish, right? Wrong! The literal translation makes no sense in English, so the words cannot be directly translated. 

This issue is why the Google Translate technique often results in gibberish. Although machine translation has improved over the past several years, it still generates literal translations a lot of the time that sound like nonsense.

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Indirect translation techniques

Because direct translation techniques are limited, translators also have to use indirect, creative methods to convey content appropriately. 

4. Transposition

This indirect-translate technique is commonly used. It refers to translations that don’t change the meaning but do change word order or parts of speech. These changes are necessary for the text to make sense – for example, changing nouns to verbs, gerunds to infinitives or adjectives to nouns. 

Some basic examples of English/Spanish transposition:

  • ‘yellow house’ becomes ‘casa amarillo’ (house yellow)
  • ‘I like reading’ becomes ‘me gusta leer’ (to read pleases me)
  • ‘the French border’ becomes ‘la frontera con Francia’ (the border with France)

Transposition is usually required by the language and not the translator’s creative choice. Because of the complicated variations between languages, this is another example of where the machine translate technique often goes wrong.

5. Modulation

Modulation involves changing the semantics or perspective of a text to convey the correct idea. This works well for ideas that share similar meanings (with different words) across cultures and languages – for example, ‘like the palm of my hand’ vs ‘like the back of my hand’ to describe something you know well. Another example is ‘pulling my leg’ vs ‘grabbing my hair’ to refer to someone tricking you.

This technique requires related (or sometimes opposite) words that convey the right meaning. If it makes more sense in the target language, the point of view is changed: saying ‘It’s not funny’ rather than ‘It’s serious’ is a type of modulation technique.

6. Reformulation

When the above techniques can’t convey an idea clearly, a more creative, abstract approach is needed. This technique, also called ‘equivalence’, replaces a phrase entirely. The goal is to maintain the essence of the idea, even if all the words are different. 

Take the expression ‘Close but no cigar’. It has no meaning when translated literally, and you probably can’t use modulation for this phrase. So, you need to find a culturally and linguistically appropriate way to convey ‘nearly right’ or ‘almost made it’ while maintaining the informal tone.   

7. Adaptation

When the audience won’t understand a reference for a cultural reason, you might need to substitute ideas. This translation technique is more about feelings or concepts than about words. 

One example is an American text that discusses turning 21 (the legal age for drinking). The event’s importance might be hard for some audiences to understand, so you might decide to adapt it by discussing turning 18, 16 or 15. Similarly, a reference to football-obsessed fans might make more sense to a general audience than cricket-obsessed fans.

How to translate technique into skill

Becoming a skilled translator takes a lot of training in addition to having native-level language skills. For professionals who translate, technique is a crucial consideration – however, knowing when to use each translation technique is just as important as knowing how. 

These top-notch skills are developed through experience with the target language and culture, and translators involved in the creative processes of transcreation and localization or in specialised translation often have backgrounds in law, marketing or medicine. This additional background makes it easier for them to know when to use the different techniques.