Translation Strategies

Over the past 20 years of my translation work I have discovered that there are the following strategies* to convert a text from one language into another:

Literal Translation
This is what most of us had to do in school, where we sat with our dictionaries, looking up every other word and getting increasingly frustrated. Never mind. Real translation doesn’t work like that. Results of this approach are texts copied word by word, which are not at all idiomatic in the target language. Such texts lack fluency and are generally eyed with suspicion by most professional translators. Besides, they will be immediately recognized as translations by native speakers of the target language.

You can forget this strategy right away. No one should have to suffer under literal translation.

Exact Translation (One-on-One Translation)
Well, one could point out that every translation should be exact. Yes, but how do we define exact in this case? Think about it!

By exact translation I mean that each unit of meaning in a text should be matched with a corresponding unit in the target language. I like to call them logical context units, or LCUs. They are not lexemes or morphemes. In contrast, they are the shortest linguistic units that make sense to the human mind in the context at hand. An LCU may be a single word (e.g. yes, no) or a group of words (e.g. I am sitting). LCUs may overlap with other LCUs in the same sentence. As a rule, LCUs are hardly ever complete sentences. LCUs are the first thing I try to detect in any text. They are often directly attributable to a physical object, an action, an emotion, a process, or a sensory-based perception, but not limited to these. They usually cannot be denied their unique meaning. They just are what they are in the given context. For translation, they must be as unambiguous as possible in both languages concerned.

Exact translations are recommended for certain types of technical texts and texts that are highly structured in order to become meaningful at all.


  • Manuals
  • Instruction Guides
  • Glossaries
  • Technical Data Descriptions

Remember, however, that exact translation does not mean a one-on-one match at word level. Not every word from the source must have precisely one counterpart in the target.

Technical Translation (or Jargon-centric Translation)
Most technical translations are characterized by the use of a certain jargon (see Legalese and Other Jargons).

Contracts, for example, are constructs of often complex legal formulas. They can be composed of very different elements in either language, which at first glance may make the two texts (source and target) look entirely different. Yet, a lawyer familiar with jargon A (i.e. legalese of the source language) and a lawyer familiar with jargon B (i.e. legalese of the target language) will understand exactly the same when reading the texts in their respective working (or native) languages.


  • Contracts
  • Scientific Treatises
  • Medical and Pharmaceutical Texts
  • Legislative Texts
  • Company / Product Whitepapers

Creative Translation
When a text was written to evoke a certain emotional reaction in the reader, it may not suffice to search for equivalent LCUs in the texts and phrases between source and target language. It may happen that a similar response can only be achieved when a totally different linguistic pattern is used in the target language.

This, of course, requires intimate cultural knowledge and sometimes extensive research by the translator working on the text.


  • Works of Literature
  • Children’s Books
  • Websites
  • Marketing Collateral

Contextual Translation
Sometimes a text cannot be translated in the classical sense, because it is supposed to be used differently in the target language.

For example, the target group may be different, the knowledge level of the foreign readers may be lower or higher than that of the original language speakers, the situation while using the text might vary between the languages, and so on and so forth.


  • Press Digests for inter-company distribution
  • Management Summaries of International Competitor Publications
  • Foreign-language transcript of a Speech to be published in a book

Experienced translators know at first glance which strategy will work for which text.

*Over time, several attempts have been made to formalize translation and to attach names to the translation techniques employed by professional language service providers. I believe that most of the known definitions are incomplete, inasmuch as they tend to use a merely polarizing approach. Therefore, this entry does not reproduce them. Instead, I have identified strategies viable in actual translation situations for translating texts by approaching their intricate elements in a certain way. Neither of the described techniques works exclusively. Most texts require a combination of several or most of the described methods.


2 Responses to “Translation Strategies”

  1. translation agency London Says:

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