Translation techniques

Here's a brief outline of a widely-accepted list of translation techniques [quoted from]:


1. Borrowing

This means taking words straight into another language. Borrowed terms often pass into general usage, for example in the fields of technology ("software") and culture ("punk"). Borrowing can be for different reasons, with the examples below being taken from usage rather than translated texts:

  • the target language has no (generally used) equivalent. For example, the first man-made satellites were Soviet, so for a time they were known in English as "sputniks".

  • the source language word sounds "better" (more specific, fashionable, exotic or just accepted), even though it can be translated. For example, Spanish IT is full or terms like "soft[ware]", and Spanish accountants talk of "overheads", even though these terms can be translated into Spanish. 

  • to retain some "feel" of the source language. For example, from a recent issue of The Guardian newspaper: "Madrileños are surprisingly unworldly."


    2. Calque

    This is a literal translation at phrase level. Sometimes calques work, sometimes they don't. You often see them in specialized, internationalized fields such as quality assurance (aseguramiento de calidad, assurance qualité, Qualitätssicherung...).


    3. Literal Translation

    Just what it says - "El equipo está trabajando para acabar el informe" - "The team is working to finish the report". Again, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. For example, the Spanish sentence above could not be translated into French or German in the same way - you would have to use technique no. 4...


    4. Transposition

    This is the mechanical process whereby parts of speech "play musical chairs" (Fawcett's analogy) when they are translated. Grammatical structures are not often identical in different languages. "She likes swimming" translates as "Le gusta nadar" (not "nadando") - or in German, "Sie schwimmt gern", because gerunds and infinitives work in different ways in English and Spanish, and German is German (bringing in an adverb to complicate matters). Transposition is often used between English and Spanish because of the preferred position of the verb in the sentence: English wants the verb up near the front; Spanish can have it closer to the end. 


    5. Modulation

    Now we're getting clever. Slightly more abstract than transposition, this consists of using a phrase that is different in the source and target languages to convey the same idea - "Te lo dejo" - "You can have it".


    6. Reformulation (sometimes known as équivalence)

    Here you have to express something in a completely different way, for example when translating idioms or, even harder, advertising slogans. The process is creative, but not always easy. Would you have given the name Sonrisas y lágrimas to the film The Sound of Music in Spanish?


    7. Adaptation

    Here something specific to the source language culture is expressed in a totally different way that is familiar or appropriate to the target language culture. Sometimes it is valid, and sometimes it is problematic, to say the least. Should a restaurant menu in a Spanish tourist resort translate "pincho" as "kebab" in English? Should a French text talking about Belgian jokes be translated into English as talking about Irish jokes (always assuming it should be translated at all)? We will return to these problems of referentiality below. 


    8. Compensation

    Another model describes a technique known as compensation. This is a rather amorphous term, but in general terms it can be used where something cannot be translated from source to target language, and the meaning that is lost in the immediate translation is expressed somewhere else in the TT. Fawcett defines it as: "...making good in one part of the text something that could not be translated in another". One example given by Fawcett is the problem of translating nuances of formality from languages which use forms such as tu and usted (tu/vous, du/Sie, etc.) into English which only has 'you', and expresses degrees of formality in different ways. If you want to read more, look at Fawcett 1997:31-33.


    For a more complete description of existing definitions and classifications of translation techniques, read the article Translation Techniques Revisited: A Dynamic and Functionalist Approach.