Words, Meaning and Context: Guest Blog by Brandi Miller

Content Writing, Translation Services

The other day I was talking to a friend in graduate school about his program and he invited me to his graduation. When I asked when it would be, he answered that he had two semesters left and then he would be free. Not working (or living, for that matter) in an environment where time revolves around semesters and academic years, I had to ask for clarification on exactly when I should plan to attend the ceremony. One quickly realizes that something as simple as time, which seems so black and white, can be dependent on your situation and context. After all, we all know “Just a minute!” does not necessarily mean 60 seconds.

One of the great powers of language is that we can mold it in many ways to say exactly what we want. Much like an artist with clay, a translator takes words and sculpts and shapes to send just the right message. A translation is not simply taking one word and putting it into another language; it is a union of words and phrases and context, so that the final product means exactly what was intended.

For many working in the languages services industry, this challenge to find just the right word is exactly why they do what they do. In the same vein, for companies and organizations who want to reach across borders – geographically, culturally, linguistically – meaning matters, and turning to a professional linguist to get just the right message is an obvious step. Contrary to what some may believe, this process does not have to be an obstacle. There are ways to make it more efficient, timely, cost-effective and, frankly, less of a challenge.

There are some things that, if identified from the beginning, can help any translation project go as smoothly as possible.

What language(s) do you need and what audience are you targeting with the translation? While perhaps this seems an obvious question with an obvious answer, many countries are the home to people speaking several different languages, so it is best to be as specific as possible. Are you targeting Dutch or French speakers in Belgium? If you are releasing a campaign throughout the country, should you consider translating not only to both Dutch and French, but also German?

Target Audience
In addition to which language, another important aspect to consider is register, i.e. the style of language, word choice and grammar one uses dependent on a situation (for example, a formal speech versus chatting with your friends). Language register can make or break how your target audience receives your message (because ultimately communication is dependent on both how the speaker presents a message AND how a receiver hears it). Is your message aimed at a casual environment or a formal one? While your source text will likely be representative of this, some languages handle register in a number of ways, so it is important to be clear in your objectives so as not to alienate potential customers or partners.

File Format
In what format will you send the source text and in what format do you need the final translation? For example, will you be pasting the text from the translated Word document into some other program? Or is the Word document going to be your final product? (And, in that case, maybe we should send you a PDF so we know spacing and text will not be thrown off in the transfer). Or, maybe a two-column Excel file is better because then you can easily reference your source material with the translation. The possibilities are numerous and you might be surprised at the options for delivery, so if you can be clear in exactly what you want to do with it, a language expert can try to suggest the best way(s) to send you the final translation.

Post-translation Steps
Companies and organizations put a lot of time and effort into writing their material. Linguists do the same to make sure this material is correctly communicated into another language. While it may be tempting to simply copy and paste a translation into the original files, where your images and graphics already are, beware that this is not so simple with some languages and fonts. Words and lines (and thus, meaning) can easily be garbled during this step. In addition, a linguist can help with localization of content and images, that is, choosing phrasing and pictures specific to a particular target audience. This allows you to tailor your message, both contextually and visually, as well as avoid any inadvertent implications.

What is your timeline? Again, this seems an obvious question, but there are steps built into translation processes and identifying a timeline, or at least what you anticipate it to be, makes sure you have what you need when you need it. Depending on the project, you may want Desktop Publishing services or a post-translation review, and being clear up front ensures your timeline is met.

While nobody expects a client to know everything, identifying what your own intentions are in getting something translated can help speed things up and save your bottom line. It is important to note that translators come from around the globe and all walks of life, so the more you know about what you need, the better a translator can be matched to your project based on their experience, background and specialties. This ensures you get the best possible translation for your needs.

Translation is a truly collaborative process that involves a client, a linguist, an end client, and potentially many others in between. Experience has taught me that most people involved in this are more than happy to help or to direct you to who can. Given this, my most valuable piece of advice is to always ask if you have any questions.

Brandi Miller has more than 10 years of experience in the language services industry, including as a translator, interpreter and project manager. She has been a part of efforts toward interpreter certification and training, and spoken on diverse issues involving refugee communities and language access. She received her bachelor’s degrees in Portuguese and Spanish at the University of Iowa and spent time studying at the Universidade de São Paulo in Brazil.

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