Translation is not simply rendering one word from a source language into its target counterpart. It’s not even about turning a whole text from English into Spanish, for example. Translation is about presenting the idea of the written text with all its nuances, tone, evaluation, humor, etc. to an audience that simply speaks a different language without losing any of the beauty of the original.

context in translation

In order to achieve that, translators need not only to master the language(s) they work with but also be aware of the culture and peculiarities that go with it.  

For a successful localization of any text, however, it is very important to be aware of the context, in which the text is situated. No matter if we talk about document translation, localization of e-learning materials or video subtitling, a proper understanding of the context is of paramount importance.  

Multiple Meaning and Context  

In every language, there are words that have multiple meanings, which is revealed through the context, in which the word is used. In English, for example, there are many words that can be both verbs and nouns and if you are given simply a list of words to translate it will be hard to guess which form or meaning to choose. Quite often, if you are faced with website translations you have some phrases or words that need to be rendered in another language exactly. In this case, it is necessary to have the context and possible location of the text you are working with. For example, if you have the word “submit” and you know that it comes at the end of a page where the user was asked to fill in certain information and then needs to press a button to submit it, you know how to properly translate the verb. If, however, the verb comes from a video game, where the main character is faced with two options – “to resist” or “to submit,” the verb already has a totally different meaning.

As you can see, context plays a vital role in selecting the right meaning of a word with multiple meanings. In such cases, machine translation will not be such a good idea, as machines will not distinguish between the two settings and the translation can be misleading or even completely inaccurate.

Linguistic Context and Situational Context

When we speak about context, it is important to note that there are basically two types of context: linguistic and situational. Both play a significant role in the translation process. 

  • Linguistic context means the connections between the words in the text. The idea is that each word exists in a relationship with the other words in the text and not in isolation. The linguistic context determines its meaning. The interaction with other words helps the translator choose the right counterpart in the translation. Therefore, we speak for a translation of the overall meaning of the text and not a word for word rendering of the text from one language into another.  
  • Situational context refers to the specific factors and circumstances that may affect the meaning of a given text. It is a much broader concept than the linguistic context and sometimes can be interpreted differently by different people. Situational context may be related to the facial expressions or gestures of the person speaking or to the social, political or economic nuances a text bears. It is fair to say that situational context can be related to the culture at large. 

Context is very important and one and the same text may have a totally different meaning if set in a different context. It is very important to be familiar with it before you start a translation and localization project.

Tools that Help Match Translation to Context 

It is necessary to provide good communication options between the client and the language service provider. The exchange of information can be vital for the overall success of the translation project. The translator should carefully review the text and ask for additional information and context if need be. If the translator or the translation manager approaches the client with a request for more context, this is clearly a sign of a diligent job done and not lack of experience or incompetence. The request for additional information reveals the desire of the translator to provide a high-quality service that matches the needs of the customer. 

There are certain tools that can facilitate translators in their job. Being able to visualize the positioning of their text is one of the things that can help a lot. This is especially important when working on website translations. Here the length of the translated text plays a significant role. If translating from Chinese to German, for example, you need to envisage much more space for the translated phrases (almost double in some cases). If you know how this will be positioned, you can come up with some clever ideas about how it can fit better. 

Having the opportunity to watch the video when preparing the subtitles for it is also very useful for the translators. It makes the work much faster and easier.  

Each translation agency uses different tools that help their translators provide an outstanding service with maximum ease and in the shortest possible time. Proper terminology management is vital for any language service provider as it facilitates the work of both translators and proofreaders and helps in providing a coherent service any time.  

Generally, context can make or break your translation. If you try to simply render a text from one language into another without paying attention to its purpose, feel and overall context, the result will be less than unsatisfying. On the other hand, if you take the time to get to know the context of the translation project, you will be able to do an immaculate job. Knowing the target audience, the purpose of the text, the platform it will be published on, being an expert in the industry are factors that facilitate translation and lead to great results.

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