Why Context Matters (A Lot) in Translation

9 January 2022
GoTranscript Blog Why Context Matters (A Lot) in Translation

Translating is the act of carrying meaning across languages, but it encompasses so much more than a literal interpretation of words. A skilled translator will be able to coax nuance out of both the original language and the translation. As a result, you are left with a clear, concise document that both retains the power of the original while also breathing new life into thoughts and words in a new language.

A translator doesn't just need technical skill and fluency - they also have to be knowledgeable and accurately read the context of words and phrases. It's not a skill everyone possesses and certainly isn't a function of automated translation or machine learning solutions. Human translation is the only way to ensure that the importance of context in translation is observed. 

What Is Contextual Understanding?

Simply put, contextual understanding is the ability to parse the intended meaning of the original text. More specifically, contextual understanding observes both the original document and the text and context in translation to create the most accurate finished document. To do this successfully, a translator needs to:  

  • Maintain a working knowledge of idioms and other peculiarities of speech in the source language
  • Have an excellent grasp of the target language's grammar and idiosyncrasies
  • Keep up with the culture of the original language  

If you want your translated content to be smooth and accurate, be sure to go with an experienced translator. You get what you pay for, and spending a little extra to ensure linguistic and cultural competency is important.

As a client, you can help ease the way for your project by supplying your translator with a brief guide to: 

  • Your expected audience
  • The intended tone (informal, business, casual, serious)
  • Slang
  • Popular culture, history, and general knowledge  

A good translator has the necessary background knowledge and cultural competency to produce a finished product that respects the original.  

Use Context to Give Meaning

A translation is about so much more than just the meanings of words. Translation gives specific meaning to individual words, but those words mean nothing if they don't make sense together. That is where context comes in. Context is everything when you are talking about translation. Context informs the meaning of a sentence, phrase, or paragraph. Context tells you when and where an action occurs, as well as who performs it, how, and why. Knowing the larger context of a text can help determine the author's intent when using homonyms or words with more than one meaning. 

For instance, is "play" a noun, referring to a performance, or a verb denoting action? Once a translator knows that, they can begin to form the basis of the text. If "play" is a verb, they know that the sentence will have a subject and object that they need to identify. The verb tense will tell them when the action occurs. If your translator decides that "play" is a noun instead, your document won't make any sense at all.

This is where translators face a challenge: more often than not, they cannot ask the author what their intent was. So they have to use context to tease out the messages in the writing. This is where automated translation fails on a grand scale.  

What About Automated Translation?

Many translation services are starting to use automation software to streamline the process, but that is a mistake. Automation is fine for some activities, but translation is not one of them. The software lacks perspective, history, and culture. By its very nature, the software cannot be subtle; it doesn't understand the nuances of language, no matter how advanced the programming is. Automation can give you a translation, yes, but one that exists in isolation. A complete translation is a living thing. It is full of everything a translator knows, has experienced, and understands.  

How Can GoTranscript Help?

At GoTranscript, we employ actual humans. We do not use automation software or machine learning, so you always know your translation is handled professionally and accurately, including editing. Our translators are fluent in more than 40 languages and can translate everything from letters and emails to dissertations and scholarly articles. At a starting cost of $.06 per word and no added fees, we offer cost-effective translation. Our carefully selected translators are native English speakers and seasoned experts, so your work always ends up in the best hands. 

In Conclusion

Context is the most important part of translation. Getting the context right requires more than just functional fluency. You want a translator who understands history, contemporary culture, the limits of language, and the intended audience. Context can make or break a finished translation. Always use skilled and knowledgeable translators to ensure that your text is accurate and contextually sound.