Thursday, April 18, 2013

Equivalence: It's Just Not The Same

If you know a foreign language, then you've undoubtedly been prodded by a friend at some point to translate a phrase into the language. Much to everyone's annoyance, there is rarely a single correct answer to be given. When it comes to translation, equivalence is a hugely important element of the process.

Equivalence, put simply, is to what degree the translation replicates the qualities of the source language (SL) into the target language (TL). The translator's job is to ensure that the translation remains as faithful to the original as possible using any of the multiple ways to evaluate equivalence.

"Is someone talking about me in French?"
You could follow sense-for-sense translation and ensure that the meaning of an expression is maintained. In French, one can literally "speak of the wolf" (parle du loup), which is the equivalent of the English expression "speak of the devil". If you're learning French it would be useful to know the differences between the two expressions, but a word-for-word translation wouldn't retain the meaning of the phrase in the TL.

Translating literally, or word-for-word translation, though not often useful for professional translation, can serve a purpose, if not just for an explanation. However, word-for-word translation will often result in an unnatural sounding translation. Just as we would avoid replicating French syntax when translating into English, the same should be said of the reverse.

Equivalence goes far beyond sense-for-sense and word-for-word as in many parts of language there are the ideas of the strength of a word. The words big, large, huge, massive and enormous all share a similar meaning in terms of size, but it's vital that the translation conveys to what extent the ST conveyed the idea.

The same goes for emotional and cultural equivalence. At times, especially within literature, figurative expressions will require greater attention as the translator must put themselves within the mind of the writer and ensure that a reader in any language not only reads the same words, but also interprets the same sense to the same degree and exhibits the same emotional responses. Even the world's best translators will have to compromise every so often.

What are some of the most difficult linguistic compromises you've had to make when it came to equivalence? Tell us about them in the comments below.

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