The Etymology of Translation

According to research by Common Sense Advisory Research, the global translation industry is a £23 billion industry. To understand the context of our understanding of translation in the West and how your organisation can use it to aid your international expansion, we need to investigate the roots behind the word itself.

The etymology of translation

The English word translation comes from the Latin “translatio”. “Trans” translates as “across”, while “ferre” means to “to carry or “to bring”, “latio” derives from “latus”, the past participle of “ferre”. Taking these meanings together, our contemporary definition for translation is “carrying across”, or “bringing across”. In this context, we are referring to text only.

Interestingly, many European meanings for the concept of translation do not distinguish between translating and interpreting. For English speakers, translation deals with written materials, while interpreting is the process of translating speech from one language to another.

But is this definition sufficient to convey the diverse skill set and activities of a translator? Translation can be much more than a faithful carrying across of meaning; translators localise, adapt and modify the style and content of a text in order to empathise with their audience too.

The roots of translation across Europe

The Latin roots of translation are shared by many European Romance languages, but there are subtle differences in meaning. The French (“traduction”), Spanish (“traducción”) and Italian (“traduzione”) terms for this word all come from the Latin “transducere”. “Trans” in the English word “translation” means “across”, and “ducere”, “to lead”. So, rather than to “carry across” as in English, these Romance languages imply a need to take the lead across language barriers rather than simply carrying meaning when translating.

Elsewhere in Europe, German speakers use the term “übersetzen”, literally translating to “set across”, while Swedes use “översättning”, which can be said to refer to “passing over”.

A further diversion from our understanding of the concept is found in the Finnish term “käännös”, which literally translates to “a turn / a turning”.

The way translators think about translation in the modern context contains all of the above sentiments, proving that the job of translators is much more nuanced than its etymological roots would suggest.

A modern approach to translation

Translation can necessitate that a translator remains absolutely faithful to the original text to carry across its meaning. In many instances, it is vital that a translation accurately carries across the purpose of the text, such as instruction manuals for medical products and devices. Accuracy in translation can be the difference between a successful business expansion and disaster – including financial repercussions and brand damage.

Taking the example above: a translation which misinterprets a word, instruction or measurement could lead to illness or injury, and in today’s litigious climate, a legal case can be pursued against the company that sold the product.

However, there are also occasions when a translator will best-serve their audience by rewriting the text to suit the sensibilities of the reader. Literal translations are not always suitable, and can cause meaning to get lost in translation, rather than sticking closely to the original intention of the translator.

So, when should a translator take a little more creative license? Direct translations rarely communicate the intended message, especially when considering marketing materials. A translator must often creatively find a path to retain the crux of the original message, while localising it to a new market with different common understandings, cultural cues and culture. To reinterpret a text so that it is engaging to a new audience but hits the right notes consistently requires a translator to use all their native language knowledge and a certain amount of creativity to recreate the source text.

Transcreation allows translators to flex their creative muscles

Translating emotion is a difficult task. Successful marketing hinges on the ability to draw an emotional response; the triggers for these emotional responses often do not translate between languages. This is another scenario where a translator must put on their creative hat, as they’ll need to pull out a solution which elicits the emotional content of the original material, while drawing on the culture of the target country.

Marketing materials are written by copywriters, who are in essence writing creatively to draw an emotional response from their audiences and prompt a desired action. Translators, therefore, will always have a difficult task translating directly into a new language, as the original marketing texts, whether they are adverts, website copy or brochures, are written using creative concepts with a purpose in mind.

For a translator to put forward messages which resonate with a new audience, they must consider the structure and tone of the original and the capabilities of the target language. Each language has a scope of what it can communicate in how many words and each is tied by grammar rules such as word ordering.

A translator must first understand the copy purpose in the original language, before evaluating what the constraints of the target language will allow, and then employ a creative solution, for instance, adapting the headline.

This article was first published at Bubbles.


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