The Translator’s Mind – Part I, The Context

I sometimes get the impression that most non-translators consider the act of translating to be a kind of simple language conversion: One language in, the other language out. “Please, can you type this in English”, says the German-speaking boss to the secretary.

Contrary to this belief, in order to get a viable translation result rather complex cognitive processes must be invoked. Actually, translating is very much like writing itself, only the basic initial idea has been someone else’s. In translating, the entire context of the text must be considered so that its full meaning and the meaning of each individual sentence is grasped. And, the more experience a translater has, the more efficient and versatile these processes will be.

Let me stay with the idea of a text’s context for a little while. Every text has a purpose and an intended effect on the reader. Now, these two depend strongly on the context in which the said text exists. The simple exclamation “Oh, my!” may be an expression of joy, surprise, scorn, anger or even shock, depending on the situation in which it is said. In other languages than English there might not be an equivalent expression that is valid for all these situations. A different phrase might be necessary for each given set of circumstances. On the other hand and in other situations, different words are plausible to convey the same intended meaning.

Humans are highly contextual beings. In fact, the latest in cognitive science states that we operate based on a so-called situational cognition. This theory puts our experiences and knowledge chunks in constant relation to the actual situation we encounter ourselves in at a given moment in time. So, our knowledge is not absolute. Neither is our reaction to textual (or other, for that matter) input. A good translator considers the situation in which the reader will most likely be confronted with the text to be translated before even starting to work.

The essence of translation is to create an output which reproduces a text as appropriately as possible in a language different from the one in which it was originally written. This is what professional translators learn probably on their first day at translator training. But what does this really mean? Does every exact word of the source text have to be replaced by its equivalent in the target language? Is every phrase or sentence necessary in the translation to get the message across? Must the length of the result equal the length of the input? Well, no to all three, because natural language does not work like that.

A translator rises her/his mind to a meta-level above the actual words and phrases of the source text and extracts the proverbial meaning. The meaning is then re-written in the other language. Sometimes there are exact equivalents, sometimes there are none at all. This is what makes translation such hard work. And this is why machines still can’t do it properly. They function, we understand.

So long and keep up the good spirit



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: