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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  The art of translation: pitfalls and strategies

The art of translation: pitfalls and strategies

By Valerie Scaletta | Published  09/5/2016 | Art of Translation and Interpreting | Recommendation:
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Valerie Scaletta
իտալերենից անգլերեն translator
Անդամ է դարձել՝ Sep 11, 2007-ին։
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A firm grasp of languages is the key point for successful translation and a sound knowledge of SL and TL is an essential prerequisite in any translation task.
In this day and age, multilingualism is implicitly accepted as a common phenomenon, however, language barriers still need to be overcome regularly when travelling, working and studying.
Translators are called upon to bridge communication gaps in a multitude of areas (politics, medical/pharmaceutical/scientific fields, law and contracts, business, finance, the automotive industry to cite but a few) and regardless of their flair for lanuages, they are faced with a number of pitfalls.

Translators undoubtedly need to be proficient in their source language and translate into their mother tongue or language of habitual use. This leads me to briefly touch on the issue of bilingualism. Lyons believes that (1981, 9.4, p. 282):

“perfect bilingualism, if it exists at all, is extremely rare, because it is rare for
individuals to be in a position to use each language in a full range of situations
and thus to acquire the requisite competence”.

However, even if, for the sake of argument, we grant that bilingualism actually exists, it is simply not enough. Translators need to have a thorough understanding of the area of inquiry addressed in the ST and be able to convey its meaning as faithfully as possible. Being ‘bilingual’ is certainly a quintessential requirement, nevertheless, it is not the core element characterising a reliable translator. Specialisation in a few select fields (medicine and law primarily) is recommended, in order to be credible and remain ‘safe’ in treading on familiar ground. Indeed, an in-depth understanding of a language pair is simply not sufficient to ensure insight into the mechanisms behind translation.

When a translation request is received, it is crucial to view the text in question so as to grasp its specific area of inquiry. The context should then be scanned and any specialised terminology examined. Subsequently, the translator should make full use of all necessary tools such as dictionaries and glossaries, re-reading the original text alongside the translation to ensure that the contents match, then read through the translation once again for the purpose of stylistic consistency, run a spell-check and verify that both layouts coincide before sending the translation back to the client.

Being able to speak and write two or more languages is one thing, encompassing them in all their multi-faceted aspects is a different matter altogether. Therefore, a good command of SL and TL is imperative, however, to translate a text effectively a number of other factors has to be considered.

According to Baker, translators are dependent on intuition and experience in order to be recognised as professionals and, as she so aptly puts it in her coursebook on translation, “translators need to appreciate what language is and how it comes to function for its users” (1992, 1, p. 4).
This is apparent in the daily work of translators, who are required to engage in the difficult task of channelling the ST message into a TT and are faced with the almost impossible issue of equivalence. This is arguably the most complicated problem since exact equivalence cannot be achieved because two languages never fully mirror each other. Varying contextual, cultural and emotional connotations need to be considered, and differences in rhythm, field, tenor, register and mode are inescapable restrictions. Lack of equivalence needs to be offset by the application of specific strategies which can help the translator attain a more accurate result. These include translating a given word into a term endowed with a broader meaning, translating by merely leaving out a word in the TT where deemed appropriate, translating into a near equivalent word similar to the original even if somewhat blander in intensity, relying upon paraphrase to transfer the concept elucidated in the ST, etc. (Baker, 1992, 2, pp. 23-44). It goes without saying that mastering a language in all its lexical, semantic and syntactic intricacies is no mean feat, however being aware of the shortcomings arising from translation between languages is a step in the right direction.

Ideally, a flawless translation would read as if written originally in the TL, which is precisely the aim of every conscientious professional linguist. Aside from being entirely fluent in both languages, the translator needs to be equipped with a set of skills to be developed over time and become more finely honed with experience.

First and foremost, the translator needs to understand the skopos of the commissioned task. If a more literal translation is required, as in the case of an instruction manual, the task will prove considerably easier in that the translator may carry out a straightforward, almost word-for-word translation. On the other hand, in more structured texts such as newspaper editorials or tourist brochures, the translator will need to rely on an intrinsic “feel” for the subject-matter while clearly understanding the expectations of his/her readership. Depending on the end-purpose, the translator may be allowed greater freedom in his/her translation choices, in other cases s/he may not be granted such licence. If tackling a poem, a more artistic approach is appreciated, as it is more important to transmit the suggested mood, nuances and hues in poetry rather than the actual corresponding terms.

The translator may benefit from thoroughly researching his/her subject in order to absorb the underlying sense of the ST. This is vital when translating a clinical trial or a legally binding contract. Although colour and pattern do not permeate this type of text as a rule, a specific jargon needs to be considered, namely ‘medicalese’ and ‘legalese’ respectively. The former consists of wide range of set formulae and expressions which are helpful on a more descriptive level, whereas the latter comprises a collection of recurring Latinisms, terms and idioms that appear time and time again in agreements, articles of association and deeds.

Ultimately, translation is an art of sorts. As such, it does indeed spring from a gift, a natural tendency, but like all arts it needs to be cherished and nurtured. Thus, it is relevant to understand precisely how language works, the ins and outs of linguistics, the inevitable compromises which every translator has to reach when translating particularly taxing texts, the power of communicating concepts gleaned from one language into another.

They say practice makes perfect. Although a complete level of perfection is virtually impossible to attain in translation, only by translating on a daily basis are we able to learn more about our linguistic flaws and how to conquer them. The perfectionist translator is never entirely satisfied with any piece of translated work as there is always room for improvement as better ways of rendering the final product are tirelessly sought. Even when a few linguistic hitches are surmounted, the meticulous translator never ceases to strive for the best possible translation.

Translation may be viewed as a mere shadow of captured meaning. Translating is like taking a photograph: the image may resemble the authentic picture, but it is only a replica. There is no perfect translation, due to numerous cultural and genre-specific items in language that hinder the presentation of an ideal translation. Nevertheless, a valid translation is certainly feasible, bearing in mind that switching between two languages is a difficult and often unjustly underestimated exercise. A functional translation is based on the inherent knowledge of two languages, which is necessary as a prior condition, whereas an outstanding translation is the result of specifically selected criteria, such as, to name but a few: a careful analysis of the ST, familiarity with the field of expertise, the application of precise linguistic and stylistic rules and the ability to adapt the coherence and meaning disclosed in the SL to the TT.

Moreover, cultural awareness deserves to be mentioned in its political and ethical implications, as translators need to be sensitive to significantly different cultural backgrounds and the way in which their linguistic choices are perceived by the recipients. As Iida claims in his Translation Journal with regard to Williams’ study, translation refers to “the action of negotiating cultural and linguistic codes” (taken from Williams, D.S. 2005). This is evident in the everyday struggle of translators worldwide as they become, if need be, writers, adaptors, editors and censors of a broad spectrum of “untranslatable” concepts when responsibly debating how to treat a sensitive text and what information can be modified, added or removed.

Lastly, the translation profession is a challenging and rewarding career path, albeit swarming in potential drawbacks. It is pivotal to bear in mind that language is ever-changing and in constant evolution, which means keeping up to date with any transitions or changes in terminology, shifts in meaning, linguistic development and innovation. Keeping an open outlook on language variations as well as an honest approach and an eye for detail are useful tools for the wary translator, eager to please the end customer and to fulfil an inner, more intimate need.


1. Baker, M. (1992). In Other Words; a course book on translation (2nd ed). London: Routledge

2. Crystal, D. (2005). How language works, Penguin

3. Iida, A. (2008). Individual differences in the translation process: differences in the act of translation between two groups of ESL Japanese students. Retrieved from

4. Lyons, J. (1981). Language and Linguistics, Cambridge University Press

5. Munday, J. (2001). Introducing Translation Studies, London: Routledge

6. Williams, D. S. (2005). The belief systems of cultural brokers in three minority communities in America. Indiana University of Pennsylvania. [Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation].

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