Context in Translation, a Comic Secret

When it comes to communication in any language, context is really important. For good translation, it is important to always let your translators know the context of the text you have provided. When I talk about ‘arms’ are they connected to people or are they for weapons?

The Two Ronnies where masters in understanding English usage and context in comedy. The famous four candles sketch is simply about context.

It is a clear illustration of how context is important when translating. Machine translation — free translation on the Internet — still delivers bad translations because of its inability to identify context. This is the reason why most mistakes made by machine translation are so funny.

Why is the context important?

The context influences the meaning of a phrase or sentence. It is linked to the environment in which the communication takes place. In translation, the context is very important: one word may mean a different thing depending the context in which it is used.

To translate you need to understand the text. A good understanding is the key to an efficient translation. A sentence or a text is composed of words and phrases, but it requires thought, comparing the sentences around it to fully understand its meaning.


Translation has to take into account in which the industry or field the document will be used, and its purpose. Translation / language can be targeted at specific fields; its context can be technical, medical, legislative etc.

Being able to translate specialized documentation means the translator has to have specific skills and knowledge in order to understand the context and how to phrase a translation. That means translators need to be specialized in a specific field to translate correctly. You need to understand engines, for example, to describe them. Knowing an engine is powered by combustion and a motor by electricity would mean you should use different words to describe how power is supplied.

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