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Basic Building Blocks of Translation

Translation Briefs
Linguistic Levels

Grantees are dealing with the development of quality Spanish materials in a variety of ways. The procedures they are developing to govern this process are a function of their existing resources, needs, and capacity. Once the implementation period is over in September 2005, we will discuss these procedures in depth. One of the main procedures used to develop Spanish language materials is translation. And though there may be many cases in which Spanish language materials are best developed from scratch—an idea which will be discussed further in the Resource Guide along with other lessons learned by HJ grantees—for basic documents like forms and legal documents, translation remains an important process. As such, we will use this page to provide an introduction to what we’ve come to see as the basic building blocks of translation from one language to another. This section of the site also discusses some of the most common errors made in translation from English to Spanish.

Though it may seem obvious, the most important aspect of translation is not replacing each word in English with a comparable word in Spanish, but rather accurately assessing the communicative purpose of the original document in English and determining whether a translated version can achieve the same purpose in Spanish

In the assessment process a translator must determine:

  1. What is the function and how is the source text used?
  2. Can the communicative purpose be achieved with a translation or should it be different for the new audience?
  3. What are the functional and situational features in the target text?

Thus, the process of translation must start with the consideration of the communicative context of the translated text. What is its purpose? What is its intended audience? When and where is the text going to be received? Can this purpose be achieved with the intended audience using text? As any other text, a translation should be produced having its function and audience in mind. For this reason, Hablamos Juntos recommends the development of a translation brief before a document is translated. Experienced translators would not accept an assignment without this basic information.

translation briefs

A translation brief is a set of instructions that accompanies a translation request which describes how the text will be used. For the translator, the translation brief provides important information about the context in which text is made available to the reader.

Information Contained in a Translation Brief
Intended function
What for?
Audience For
Time of reception
Place of reception
Medium of transmission
Motive for production

An analysis of the source text and how it is used enables a translator familiar with the cultural and communication styles of the target audience to identify norms and conventions for the subject area that come into play, or special burdens that a text must accommodate or support. Knowledge of the new target audience also helps to determine whether a translation can achieve the intended purpose using the messages contained in the source text.

In examining the translation brief and the document to be translated, translators should consider the following:

  1. Audience

    Are there differences between English audiences and the new Spanish audience that should be considered? Given the intended function and the context within which a text is used, translators should consider audience differences by comparing situation factors associated with the source text and how these may affect the original and new audience differently. The source text should also be reviewed for how differences between audiences might affect translation decisions.

  2. Source Text

    Translators should analyze how the features (structural, organizational and syntactic) of the source text help readers comprehend the source text in English. Are the text type and features of the original document compatible with how Spanish readers expect to receive this information? To be effective, the reader must be able to relate text to their experience and knowledge of the world, regardless of the level of linguistic competency. For comprehension to be successful, the reader’s schemata should match those envisioned by the writer.

    The following is a simple example of how a translation brief can guide a translator’s decisions. Imagine that one is translating a form that asks for a social security number. If the translation brief indicates that this form is to be filled out by Spanish speakers in a doctor’s office in Arizona, the best way to translate “Social Security Number” would be “Número de seguro/seguridad social”. However, if the translation brief indicates that the form is to be used by Spanish speakers who are patients of a US-based health care provider who is starting a practice in Madrid, Spain, the best way to translate “Social Security Number” would be “Número de (carnet de) identidad”.

  3. Whether to Translate

    Though this matter was discussed in To Translate or Not to Translate, the communicative intent of the document and the context in which the document will be used are typically not immediately apparent from a simple review of the document. It is for this reason that information of the type contained within a translation brief is critical to translation and to making a decision about whether materials need to be developed from scratch rather than translated. The questions a translator should ask are: Is translation is feasible? Can the stated purpose of the text be preserved with translation or does the purpose need to be redefined?

Linguistic Levels

As may be apparent from the discussion above, translation is a complex process involving both detailed knowledge of multiple languages as well as communicative and cultural knowledge. Linguists have developed a helpful model for describing some of this complexity, which itemizes the components of which language is formed (linguistic levels). These are as follows:

  • Lexical—meaning that a language has a set of words, vocabulary or lexicon.
  • Morphological—meaning that a language has a set of rules by which new words can be created. For example, the word "insensitive" derives from "sensitive".
  • Syntactic—meaning that a language has a set or rules by which words can be combined to form sentences. For example, "The patient went to the hospital" is a possible sentence in English, but "Patient the went hospital the to" is not.
  • Semantic: Linguistic units such as words and sentences are associated with a specific meaning or convey specific information.
  • Pragmatic: Sentences are used in a specific situation or communicative context. A language has a set of rules by which the appropriateness of sentences in a specific context is determined.

Translators in the United States work under onerous requirements to remain faithful to the English original, but the questions remains: Is faithfulness at all levels necessary to produce equivalent text in a translation? No. Indeed, many errors in translation are the result of this deep obligation to faithfulness without regard to the impact on different linguistic levels. Faithfulness is necessary at the semantic level, and sometimes at the pragmatic level as well, but blind adherence to faithfulness at all linguistic levels can produce poor results.

The following passage is Mark Twain’s own translation of a speech he delivered in German to the Vienna Press Club (from The Language Instinct, How the Mind Creates Language by Steven Pinker,1994, p.51). This passage is an excellent example of faithfulness at the syntactic level inhibiting comprehension.

“I am indeed the truest friend of the German language–and not only now, but from long since–yes, before twenty years already….I would only some changes effect. I would only the language method–the luxurious, elaborate construction compress, the eternal parenthesis suppress, do away with, annihilate; the introduction of more than thirteen subjects in one sentence forbid; the verb so far to the front pull that one it without a telescope discover can. With one word, my gentlemen, I would your beloved language simply so that, my gentlemen, when you her for prayer need, One her yonder-up understands. I might gladly the separable verb also a little bit reform. I might none do let what Schiller did: he has the whole history of the Thirty Years’ War between the two members of a separate verb inpushed. That has even German itself aroused, and one has Schiller the permission refused the History of the Hundred Years’ War to compose –God be it thanked! After all these reforms establish be will, will the German language the noblest and the prettiest on the world be”.