Context is Important in Translation

Translation is much more than just words.

Is the phrase you’re so smart a compliment or a sarcastic remark?

The answer really depends on the context of the conversation you are having and with whom.  If it was still unclear, you would probably ask the person to explain what they actually meant.

Context and Understanding

The art of translation is very similar to this example of conversation. Translators must interpret the source text correctly and often will need to ask for help if they cannot work out something on their own: “What does this sentence refer to? What is the meaning of this word here?”

Unlike in a conversation however, translators cannot usually get immediate answers from the person who wrote the text. Tracing the original author can be tricky even for the person who submitted the text and queries often result in multiple emails or phone calls, which can take a lot of time and effort to respond to. Professional translators understand your terminology and the language they are translating into – but sometimes the way text is written it can have multiple meanings.

Aware of these complications, translators engage in a conversation with the text first: they look for the answers by carefully examining the context of the text. Unfortunately, asking for external help is unavoidable in those cases when the text does not provide sufficient context.

Take 5 minutes to learn the real reason context is so important.

Context in Use

Take this example: one of our Translation Teams has received an Excel file where column A contains the source text and column B is left blank for the target language. Each cell corresponds to a single string, as shown in the image below.

A translation table with no context

Would the Translation Team be able to work out the meaning intended by the author just by reading each string alone?

  • Please select a printer ? Yes. The string appears fairly straight-forward and we think the meaning and function can easily be worked out. Happy days! However does it mean select a printer in the office or does this mean select which printing company to you for our product. Are these strings from a printer operating screen or a purchasing system for printed material?
  • Record ? Probably not. Does Record refer to the action of recording something or rather to the product or to something which has been recorded? The Translation Team would probably have to ask the customer for help
  • Opt. settings ? Probably not. Is Opt. an abbreviation for optimization or options? Again, to ensure that the translation is accurate, the customer would have to be asked to clarify it

However, the translation team probably would have been capable of working out the meaning of the three strings if they had received something like this:

A translation table with context descriptions

To help our Translation Teams in producing highly accurate texts, please follow these guidelines:

  • If your text contains software strings or other types of isolated sentences, please provide a description of what each string does or, at least the descriptions of those which are ambiguous. (Don’t worry. Our PMs will prepare the files to make sure that the text in the descriptions is not quoted nor sent out for translation. We only base our quotes on what needs to be translated.)
  • If you only wish to translate certain parts of a text, please provide the entire text for reference. A file with only 10 isolated sentences will provide a completely different context from that of a file containing 500 sentences, or long paragraphs. See the video above for why context is so important and how misunderstandings can happen. The more data we have the better the translation will be.
  • If the Authoring Team is not done preparing a file or the product is not yet completed, you might want to hold on until the final version is ready to submit everything for translation. Not only will this ensure that the file you submit to us contains as much context as possible, but also:
    • It will allow us to ensure that translations are consistent. The Translation Team who is working on the first part might not be able to translate a second one because they are booked for other projects, which can result in inconsistencies. Moreover, it will be more difficult for the Proofreading Team to spot inconsistencies from one project to another than within one single project
    • It can help you save money. Further updates, if too brief, can get assessed as minimum charges, whereas they would be quoted per word if they were part of the large project
  • As a final remark, please keep in mind that translation is not done word by word! Try not to assume that all words have one single equivalent in the target language. This will help you forecast situations in which translators will need extra information to interpret the source accurately. And remember — a little preparation in advance helps save time in the long run