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The Importance of Equivalence in Translation

Daniel Chang
Daniel Chang
Posted in Zoom Jan 6 · 9 Jan, 2022
The Importance of Equivalence in Translation

Language is a play on words and the way humans communicate with each other. From the time we are babies, we are exposed to our caregivers explaining the world to us verbally. Using language, we can describe our surroundings, feelings, and things. Therefore, it is undeniable that speech plays a crucial part in everyday life. 

To understand the process of language translation, one must have a good grasp of equivalence. This core concept of translation is how humans from opposite corners of the world connect.  

What Is Equivalence in Translation

In translation, there are the source and target languages. Here, equivalence involves an attempt to convert the content while retaining the context and meaning of the original. Many view languages as having equivalent words, and that translating from one to another simply involves finding a match. That cannot be farther from the truth.

Keeping the spirit of the original text is paramount. A literal translation is practically useless when the meaning behind the words is not upheld. Equivalence only works when you have a deep understanding of what the source content is trying to convey. It doesn’t simply cover the meaning of the content but the tone and style of the delivery. This is something that machines simply cannot grasp, thus culminating in a flat translation devoid of appeal. 

Real-Life Examples

Due to cultural, social, and historical differences, languages evolve in many contrasting directions. Therefore, it might be challenging to find equating words in German and English, for example. Take the word schadenfreude, which means “the pleasure someone derives from another person’s misfortune.” That’s eight words to describe a single one!

In language, one word might have several different meanings. Take the word “mobile,” which can mean phone, movement, or flexibility. To maintain translational equivalence, it’s crucial to properly understand the context of the word. In failing to do so, there will be a breakdown in communication.

Imagine being on holiday in France, unable to understand the lovely French language. You might be able to survive with a translation app on your mobile phone. However, when a Parisian says, “Trop zarb, ton idée,” and you proceed to find the English equivalent, what do you get? “Too zarb, your idea.” Of course, only a local would be able to tell you that “zarb” is a play on words, more accurately a contraction of an inversion of the word bizarre. 

Automated Versus Human Translations

Automated translations generated by machine-learning algorithms can only go so far. Professional translators generally have a deep cultural understanding of the languages they are translating. This is what AI translators are lacking, and where humans pick up the slack. If you are ever in doubt, compare the work from an automated translation tool with a company like GoTranscript. You’ll discover that the quality of a professional human translation is second to none.

Why is that? It’s because the well-trained translators are living in the midst of two different groups of people. They know when a phrase is literal and when it isn’t. A person is able to consider the whole context of the passage when looking for a matching word in another language. That is an area where AI shows its deficiency.

Merely knowing two different languages isn’t enough. It takes years to develop the skills of a professional translator. Immersion and knowledge in social, cultural, and historical arenas are major ingredients to a successful translation. Only someone who is exposed to idioms, slang and the nuances of both languages will be able to produce a flawless translation.

If you have read a translated book, be it from Russian or Chinese to English, you’ll know how important the translator’s role is. Can you imagine a computer-translated version of The Brothers Karamazov or Anna Karenina? It will prove to be quite disappointing, naturally. Only humans can decipher and interpret the historical significance and Russian philosophies that populate these books and bring them to life in another language. 

How Important Is Equivalence in Translation?

Let’s put it this way. If you are trying to get something across clearly, you can’t ignore the importance of equivalence in translation. Wars have erupted from misunderstandings and miscommunication. Let’s not take that chance!