Translation is a spectrum. That’s it. That’s the article.

Okay, let me explain in more detail why translation is a spectrum, why translators use all parts of the spectrum within a single translation project, and why it’s important.


The Translation Spectrum

You can approach a translation from a number of different angles ranging from writing every single word in a sentence in the translation, to translating the meaning of the source (even if you don’t use the exact same words), to re-writing a sentence or term to match the intent of the source text.


Let’s take a look at an example from Natsume Soseki’s Nakami to Keishiki (Form and Content), a lecture Soseki gave in Osaka in 1911.

Watashi wa kono chiho ni iru mono de wa arimasen, Tokyo no hou ni heizei sumatteorimasu. I am not someone from this area, I usually live in the direction of Tokyo. I don't live here, I usually live in the direction of Tokyo. I'm not from around here. I actually live closer to Tokyo.

中味と形式 by 夏目漱石

Translating the words (in a grammatically correct sentence) gives us “I am not someone from this area, I usually live in the direction of Tokyo”.

If we translate the meaning, this “I am not someone from this area” really means “I don’t live here”.

Translating to match intent, however, is a little trickier because you need to know what the intent is—Why is this sentence here? What is it trying to do? Who is it aimed at?

You need to understand more about the type of text you’re working with (in this case, a lecture) and the context as a whole (which means reading the whole thing).

As you read through Nakami to Keishiki you find that Soseki is visiting Osaka and travels around Japan a lot. He wants to make the distinction between visiting these places and usually (but not always because he travels so much) lives around Tokyo.

In English we have a commonly used phrase to convey the first clause, “I’m not from around here.” So although he means “I don’t live here”, “I’m not from around here” better suits his intent and more closely aligns with the word choice of the Japanese.

There are many more ways you can word this sentence in English!


Translators actually mix these approaches all the time!

You can translate by mixing the translation of words, meaning, and intent all in one sentence! Oftentimes movies or novels will have a combination of different translation approaches throughout.

You can see this in “real time” in this New York Times article The Art of Translation. (It’s so cool! Seriously, check it out!)

This is one reason why you give the same text to 50 translators and get 50 different translations back! But it’s not just “you can word things in different ways”, there are a myriad of factors that impact a translator’s decisions.


Factors That Influence a Translation

Translators are influenced by a vast number of factors, from their individual experience and expertise, to the expectations of the audience, and even the limitations of the medium or type of translation.


The Translator

First there’s the translator as an individual person. Their life experience and experience as a translator impacts how they approach a translation. They might be more familiar with the writing styles of certain subjects, mediums, or authors.

A translator with decades of experience writing and translating feminist novels will have a different approach from a translator fresh out of college.

Newer translators will often stick closer to the wording used in the source text until they gain more confidence and find their own voice in their writing. (Because translation is a form of writing!)

Lived experience can also impact word-choice and make a translation feel more authentic. It’s easier for a native British speaker to translate into British English than a native American English speaker. Or for women to write female voices. Or for trans people to translate trans works.

Emily Wilson’s lived experiences heavily impacted her re-translation of the classic poem, The Odyssey. This is a great article from The New York Times Magazine about it.

This isn’t to say a British person can’t translate American English, or a man can’t translate women’s writing, or a cis person can’t translate trans writing. But different people bring different perspectives to a text.

If the text is told from the perspective of someone or about a subject the translator isn’t familiar with, then they will have to put in the extra time and effort to appropriately research the subject matter, and perhaps even engage the services of others who have had those lived experiences to check the translated text.

Which is why it’s important for translators to be widely read, for them to interact with different people and cultures, and to expand their lived experiences.


Audience Expectations

The translator as an individual aside, they also have to consider their audience’s expectations.

Let’s say you’re sent a letter from your local government that reads,

“Hey! Your income assessment is up and you need to tell us your income. Let us know online or by letter. Thanks.”

Something’s off, right?

How about this,

“Dear XX, your current income assessment will end on 31 November, 2023 and is now due for reassessment. Please update your details online or via letter. Yours sincerely, OOO”

There’s a clear difference in the tone between these two letters. One is very casual and the other  more formal. They both convey the same information but you would expect the tone of the second from an official document. (The first sounds like it might be a scam!)

Knowing your audience, whether you’re translating legal or medical, fantasy or sci-fi, impacts how you write the translation.

And different cultures have different audience expectations! A lot of Japanese fantasy is written in everyday Japanese, but is often translated into Tolkienesque British English because that’s what the audience expects. (Low fantasy and cozy fantasy are often written in a more casual style or American English.)

Many translators gravitate towards mediums in which they’re familiar with the styles and audience expectations.


Physical Limitations

There are some mediums with literal physical limitations imposed upon the translation.

Subtitles, comics, video games, diagrams and charts, etc. all have limited space in which the translation must be displayed.

These physical limitations directly impact word choice and sentence structure. It becomes the translator’s job to juggle those limitations while still conveying the core information to the audience. Although, if the source text is squeeeezed into too tight of a spot, then information might have to be cut.


Let’s look at an example manga translation. You can fit a lot of information into a small space in Japanese, but not so much in English. How would you translate 早めに寝ろ! (Hayameni nero!) faced with the limit of the small text (on the left) bubble below?

A word for word translation might be something along the lines of “Get to sleep early!” but is that short enough? Will it fit? Does it even sound like something someone would say? How about just “Get to bed!” or even “Bed. Now.”? These both drop the “early” but better convey the commanding tone of the speaker.


The Medium

All of the above ties into this, but the medium of the work also impacts how a translation is handled.

Consider movie translation. If you’re translating for subtitles then your translation will be impacted by,

  • the physical limits of the subtitles (normally restricted to 35-40 characters and two lines),
  • the source being directly present for the audience (they might understand it a little),
  • and the tone and beats of the source (you want to match both tone and intent).

If you’re translating for a movie dub, however, then you’re limited by,

  • the lip-flaps shown on-screen (audiences don’t like it when the voice and lips don’t match),
  • how long the speaker is speaking (the length needs to match the source),
  • and tone and beats of the source (you still want to match tone and intent).

Legal, medical, technical, video games, comics, TV shows, etc.—each medium comes with its own limitations and challenges.


Of course, to make things extra complicated, there are no set rules for how to approach a translation. It is entirely up to the translator!

Just look at the new translation of Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley who disregarded “traditional” approaches to the poem to give it a fresh new take designed to appeal to a modern audience. This translation doesn’t match audience expectations at all but she translated it to match the intent of the original, to be an epic poem that entertains the masses!

Translation isn’t a one-for-one process. There is no “one way” to translate anything. It’s messy, and complicated, and difficult. It requires the lived experience and expertise and creativity of human beings.


Be Aware of the Translation Spectrum

Whether they’re aware of it or not, I think most translators translate somewhere along this spectrum.

But it’s important for translators and non-translators alike to be aware of it because it shows how important humans are to translation. You can try to train a machine all you like but at the end of the day it’s humans’ understanding and lived experiences which shape the best translations.

Learning a language is hard, learning how to translate is hard, learning specific things about different mediums is hard! It all takes experience and is why human translation is so valuable. Not just when it comes to creative entertainment works, but legal, medical, and technical translations as well.


Other articles you might find interesting

The Translation Process

Effective Self-Editing for Terrific Translations

Becoming a Translator—There Is No Magic Button

Translating Character Voice

Written by Jennifer O’Donnell
Edited by Wesley O’Donnell


Translation is a Spectrum
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments