Can and should you ever give an accurate translation?

One of the most beautifully interesting and astoundingly annoying aspects of translation is its complexity: a single word can have a thousand meanings depending on your intentions with it, and a word in one language can morph into a sentence in another because there isn’t an equivalent of it which captures its essence so perfectly. It’s moments like this when you begin to wonder whether you can actually translate a text accurately – will you always lose some of its original spirit along with the original content? – or, perhaps more intriguingly, whether you should ever translate a text accurately. Things that make linguists go ‘hmmm’…

Tackling the lexical gap

Part of this magnificent intricacy is a thing which I brushed over above called a ‘lexical gap’ – when there is no word in a language to describe a certain concept. There are, of course, instances when you can leave the phrase in the original language because it is so well-known, like ‘déjà vu’ – if I said that to you, you would know exactly what I meant, but if I said to you ‘already seen’ you’d have almost no idea what I was talking about.
However, in other instances there can be one little word or phrase in a language which can hold so much meaning in so few letters, but when you try to translate it you find yourself grasping at single words which you will never reach or find. To overcome this problem, the concise meaning collected in this word is often drawn out through a long sentence, which, personally, I find chips away at the original beauty. There seems to be a way in which one word hits you harder than a sentence, and in losing this you have perhaps lost the original impact of the text. Other times you can do your best to describe the meaning of the word, but emerge from your endeavour fruitless because it really needs to be experienced to be understood, like with the Dutch word ‘hygge’ – the literal translation of the concept is close to ‘cosiness’, but really it is much more than that: think of a warm evening relaxing with your friends while enjoying great food and drink. You can probably see how this might be a problem when it comes to accurate translation.

Literal or liberal?

But sometimes the inhibitor of an accurate translation isn’t the content, but the translator. The question of whether you should give an accurate translation appears here, and the answer is that… it depends.
There are various pros and cons of the two extremes of translation: literal and liberal. Literal translation may seem like the way forward because you stay so close to the original meaning that you are almost hearing it from the original author, and it’s very nice and tidy if the two phrases are synonymous (in that the literal meaning of each word overlaps); but, these sorts of translations can result in it not really sounding like the target language, and if you translate word-for-word, you can miss all sorts of intricacies. For example, the Spanish idiom ‘arrimar el ascua a su sardina’ literally means ‘to put the coals next to your sardine’ – when translated this way it sounds ridiculous, but if you take coals from a fire and use them to cook your own fish as opposed to those of others, you’re being selfish, which is what it means.
Positive and negative connotations of words can also be misplaced: the Spanish word ‘llamativo’ (an adjective which comes from the verb ‘llamar’ – ‘to call’) has English equivalents like ‘showy’ and ‘garish’, but all of these imply a negative feeling. However, if you’ve placed this word in a marketing campaign for a product, you want it to have positive connotations, like the word ‘striking’ – literal translation ignores these differences.
So then there’s liberal translation, which, unlike literal, can accommodate word-play and bend to fit the conventions of the language, but it can sometimes stray so far from the original meaning that it is lost entirely.
The way most people seem to overcome this is by finding the middle ground, where you use your own judgement, creativity and the context to determine whether it is appropriate to be literal or liberal. How you translate it may also depend heavily on your intentions: if you are marketing, you want to phrase things in a way that is concise and appeals to the reader; if you are translating a fiction novel, you want to convey the imagery, the nature of characters and the beauty of the writing without making it sound clunky, so you may want to be more poetic; however if you are doing technical translation, you want to be as literal as possible without sounding clunky. You always need to look at the context, on both a small scale and a big one.

Considering cultural influence

But in the same way that you cannot translate a sentence without knowledge of its context, you cannot translate a passage without knowledge of its culture. The way people communicate varies hugely depending on which country you’re in, as I discovered first-hand when I went to Greece and was told that a single sharp nod of the head did not actually mean ‘yes’, but ‘no’, which made me re-examine all the encounters I’d had with Greek people that week…
You can even see the communication differences between cultures in just the way that people converse. Northern Europeans tend to like more distance between them and the other person when holding a conversation, whereas southern Europeans like to be up close and personal; so, when you watch a conversation between the two, you see the former unconsciously edging away with the latter continuing to advance.
The way this manifests itself in writing is through the language and phrasing used. For example, an Italian letter may begin with ‘gentilissimo/a’ which literally means ‘very kind sir/madam’ (or even ‘egregio/a’ – ‘illustrious’) and use all sorts of flowery language, but when you translate it into English you cannot provide its literal meaning unless you want some very bewildered (if slightly sneering) responses. Instead, you have to take the cultural context into account and recognise that ‘gentilissimo/a’ is really the Italian equivalent of the English ‘dear’ (which confusingly in Italian is literally ‘caro/a’ and only used with informal letters…). A few months ago I stayed with a lovely French family in Brittany for a couple of weeks, and I was trying to figure out a way of saying ‘would you mind if…?’ only to come to the conclusion that this sort of stepping-on-eggshells polite phrase does not exist in French in much the same way that queuing does not exist anywhere south of the UK – what is considered polite and appropriate is subjective. So in this way, translation may not necessarily convey the accurate meaning of the word but instead an accurate interpretation of the feeling behind it.

And that’s exactly what you have to consider when answering the question ‘can you ever give an accurate translation?’ – the meaning of ‘accurate’. If you mean accurate meanings of words, then the answer is probably not: there’s going to be an instance when you come across a word or phrase that just has to be changed for it to make sense in the target language. But if you mean accurately conveying the sentiment implied in the original text, then the likelihood is that you can, and it’s this that people try to achieve more often than the former. Whether you should also seems to balance on this unsteady meaning, as well as what your intentions entail, whether creative or technical. But while all these complexities can seem exasperating sometimes and appear to just generally make things more difficult, I feel that language, like life, would be dull without them, and in the end it is all the more incredible and fascinating because of them.

About the author: Heather Rothney is a 17 year old student at Truro High School for Girls where she currently studies French, Spanish, Latin and Classical Civilisation for AS Level. She is also learning Ancient Greek in her free time and is planning to apply at Oxford to study Classics and a Modern Language.

Nurturing young language talent

As a young and dynamic translation company that uses cutting-edge cloud-based translation technology and that translates for exciting new brands, apps and social media platforms, we are always on the lookout for young and fresh language talent.

We are super proud to announce that this year, we will be welcoming our very first work experience pupils from local schools to learn about the translation and language industry.

As part of their 1 week internship, they will get the opportunity to try their hand at proofreading and translation, as well as learning about the general business processes involved in running a translation company.

We will also publish a series of blog posts, researched and written by our interns about different language topics, so stay tuned for our ‘Young Language Talent’ posts 🙂

Transparency through technology | Part 3: Open communication

Following the discussion panel ‘Transparency through technology’ at the recent Localization World conference in Dublin, which featured SmartlingRunkeeperShutterstock and Anja Jones Translation, we wanted to provide a more in-depth overview of how language service providers (LSPs) in particular benefit from increased transparency in translation. In this final part 3, we take a closer look at open communication.

One of our jobs as a translation company is to ensure that the translators have all the information they need to provide an excellent translation, and that customers are aware of any issues that arise during the translation process.

In the traditional translation process we would have collated questions from the translators and then sent them on to the client, who would reply with their answers, which we would then have disseminated back to our team. This tended to be a laborious and time-consuming manual process. Especially for websites and apps, where content is added, updated and outdated at a breath-taking pace, it’s nearly impossible to provide truly agile translations without a means for open, fast and uncomplicated communication.

Faster response times thanks to communication automation

Using a cloud-based technology like Smartling eradicates the need to send emails back and forth by allowing translators, editors, reviewers and clients alike to ask questions and highlight localisation issues right within the translation interface. Everyone who is involved in the project receives a notification and can answer questions and add comments inside the interface. This way of openly communicating with everyone significantly speeds up the translation process since there is no unnecessary manual middle step involved in getting questions to the right people.

Adding comments at segment-level and in-context view for more efficient communication

Within the Smartling interface, questions and comments are added at segment level, so everyone can see exactly what sentence or word the question is in reference to, and can see the context surrounding the segment as well. This is hugely helpful as it makes it easier to answer questions faster and more accurately. Any segments with questions or comments attached are clearly highlighted for everyone to see and can be filtered out  to ensure a fast response and issue resolution.

Ultimately, open communication among everyone involved in a translation project creates a collaborative and more efficient work environment and helps to achieve the two goals each stakeholder in the project strives for: providing quality translations and delivering the project on time.

Want to join the conversation? Use the comments feature below or tweet us on @anjajones – we’d love to hear your thoughts.

Transparency through technology | Part 2: Real-time visibility

Following the discussion panel ‘Transparency through technology’ at the recent Localization World conference in Dublin, which featured SmartlingRunkeeperShutterstock and Anja Jones Translation, we wanted to provide a more in-depth overview of how language service providers (LSPs) in particular benefit from increased transparency in translation. In part 2 we take a closer look at real-time visibility.

Real-time visibility is not a new concept, in fact, for many customer-facing industries it’s already standard practice. Just think about online shopping where it’s now a given that you can track your order from the warehouse to your doorstep. Even fairly traditional industries like real estate are offering more visibility into their processes. As little as five years ago, you still had to ring up your solicitor and estate agent, hassling them to give you an update on how the sale of your house is going. Now, they give you a login to their website, so you can check the status of your mortgage application, search reports etc at any time. It seems only natural that the translation industry embraces this trend as well.

Real-time visibility takes the guess work out of translation projects.

Moving away from the ‘black box’ approach

In our daily work as a translation company, we would have, traditionally, sent files to our translators and then we wouldn’t really know what was happening with that file until it got delivered back to us translated. Of course, certain measures can be put in place, ensuring the translator is sufficiently qualified, checking up on references, arranging delivery in batches, etc, but none of this is really fool-proof.

One of the main advantages of cloud-based translation tools like Smartling is that they offer complete visibility across the whole translation workflow, from the translation and the editing all the way to the review step. In comparison to traditional offline translation CAT tools where the LSP sends a file to the translator and then gets the finished result back, Smartling allows us to track the progress of our projects at every stage, in real-time.

Using Smartling, we can much more closely monitor different variables such as quality, project progress and translator activity.

Checking quality

Are the translators using the right tone of voice? Are they respecting the glossary? Have they got a good grasp of the client’s products and services? Being able to check the translator’s work already after a few hundred words (rather than a batch of, say, 2000 words) and addressing any quality issues from the start of a project can be a huge time saver.

Tracking progress

Getting a real-time insight into the progress of a project gives LSPs peace of mind and eradicates the need for constant email communication with the translators to make sure they are still on track with a delivery deadline. Now we can just log in and get a complete picture of what’s going on.

Monitoring translator activity

Most of our translators are freelancers, so one of the things we have to monitor as a translation company is that translators manage their time effectively and don’t rush translations at the last minute. As with any job, rushing your work is likely to result in translations that aren’t as well written as they should be and contain more errors, which then take longer to fix in the review step. With the ‘black box approach’ of traditional offline CAT tools, we weren’t really able to track this, we could merely hazard a guess that a translator might have rushed a translation. Now we can see a complete history of every single segment a translator has worked on, including date and time stamps. If we start to see a pattern emerge where a translator regularly leaves the translation to the last minute and we notice a quality fade, we can address the issue early and directly with the translator.

In essence, real-time visibility is an enabler for LSPs to work more efficiently for their clients and with their translator workforce. It fosters accountability on all sides, and this ultimately increases mutual trust.

In part 3, we will look at transparency through open communication … stay tuned!

Want to join the conversation? Use the comments feature below or tweet us on @anjajones – we’d love to hear your thoughts.

Transparency through technology | Part 1: Accessibility

Following the discussion panel ‘Transparency through technology’ at the recent Localization World conference in Dublin, which featured Smartling, Runkeeper, Shutterstock and Anja Jones Translation, we wanted to provide a more in-depth overview of how language service providers (LSPs) in particular benefit from increased transparency in translation. In part 1 we take a closer look at accessibility.

Global accessibility

Smartling is a cloud-based translation management tool that can be accessed from anywhere in the world; all our translators need is an internet connection and a web browser. No software purchase, no installation, no regular updates to be downloaded. In fact, last week we conducted a mini-poll amongst our translators to see in which countries they have translated using Smartling, and incredibly we could name 20 countries, including far-flung places like Mauritius, Dubai, Australia and Costa Rica. Not bad considering we only specialise in three European languages (French, German and English).

Increasing the talent pool

In terms of recruiting new language talent, this level of global accessibility compared to traditional offline translation tools immediately increases the pool of potential candidates as it allows us to recruit translators purely based on their merit, not on the software packages they use.

Easy-to-use user interface

Beyond transcending geographical boundaries through cloud technology, Smartling promotes accessibility through an extremely easy to use interface that is intuitive and includes all the standard translation tools like style guide, translation memory and glossary.

Faster on-boarding

A sleek UI isn’t just an important aspect in terms of on-boarding speed for our new translators, but also for on-boarding our clients. When we show potential customers how Smartling works, they can really see how easy to use the tool is, how easy content can be ingested, approved for translation and tracked throughout the different workflow stages.

Higher adoption rates

This is particularly important for bigger companies who have in-country teams. It’s notoriously hard to motivate in-country reviewers to check translations (after all, this tends to be an additional task of top of their usual daily work load). Taking away any unnecessary technical complexity and offering a user interface that is as intuitive as using, say, LinkedIn or Facebook, will ultimately drive higher adoption rates among in-country reviewers.

In short, accessibility should be a key driver for all translation software, for freelance translators, LSPs and customers alike, because it creates a truly inclusive and collaborative environment.

In part 2, we will look at transparency through real-time visibility … stay tuned!

Want to join the conversation? Use the comments feature below or tweet us on @anjajones – we’d love to hear your thoughts.

Successful app translation: It all starts with great code

Translating your app is a great way of reaching more users and increasing revenue. But in order to create beautiful language versions of your app, you need more than just a reliable translation partner, you need code that is fit for localisation. In this blog post, we want to highlight the three most common issues that we come across in app translation and show how writing great code can help save time, speed up the translation process and ultimately improve the user experience for your international customers.

1) The Problem: Lack of context

If you are writing app code, chances are you will be using variables or placeholders for any content that is dynamic, such as user names, prices, product names, social media names, etc. And here is the question our translators ask time and time again during the translation of apps: ‘What does the variable/placeholder stand for?’

The number one rule in presenting code for localisation is to provide as much context as you possibly can for each string and especially variables. Without knowing what a variable stands for, the string surrounding it can often not be properly translated.

Here is a typical example:

English string German string
The selected {1} Die ausgewählte {1}
Das ausgewählte {1}
Der ausgewählte {1}

The selected {1} … what does that mean? What is the context and what word will replace the variable? German nouns have ‘gender’ so the simple English ‘the’ can be translated as ‘der’, ‘die’ or ‘das’ into German, depending on the gender of the noun:

English string German string
The selected file Die ausgewählte Datei
The selected folder Der ausgewählte Ordner
The selected directory Das ausgewählte Verzeichnis

Whenever a variable is preceded by an article (the, a, this, etc), an adjective (selected, deleted, saved, etc) or a preposition (on, at, by, etc), chances are that the translators will need to know what the variable stands for in order to provide a correct translation.

The solution:  Providing context at string level

There are a number of ways to provide context for translators. If you are using a simple file with a source and target column, add a third column that lists all the variables and explains what they stand for.

English German Comment
The selected {1} Die ausgewählte Datei {1} = file

Could the variable be a number of different things? Let the translators know:

English German Comment
The selected {1} Die/der ausgewählte {1} {1} = could be file or folder

Naming your variables in a way that translators can understand is another way to provide context:

The selected {1} The selected {$file}

Different coding languages will require different naming conventions, but if you have the opportunity to provide more info within your variable name, that’s a bonus.

Finally, one of the most efficient ways to provide context at string level is to use a translation management tool like Smartling. Smartling allows you to add context at string-level right within the platform so that the translator can see it above the translation. Even more importantly, you can upload screenshots alongside the string, so the translator can see where the string will sit within the app. If the translator still needs more info, they can ask a question at string level, again right within the platform. And you can answer right within the platform, too.

Providing your translation team with as much context as possible, right down to the string level, will save you time, (a) because you will have to answer a lot less questions during the translation process, and (b) because you will have fewer context errors to fix during QA.

2) The problem: Separating linguistic units across several strings

Presenting sentences for translation that have been separated across several strings, or variables that have been separated from the rest of their linguistic unit tends to cause translators a big headache. Due to the different word order and sentence structure in other languages, it’s often not possible to provide a grammatically correct, or well-formed sentence if the source has been separated across several strings. Here are some fairly typical examples we come across:

Linguistic unit Presented strings German translation
{1}’s file String 1: {1}
String  2: ‘s file
Die Datei von {1}

Most languages outside of English do not have the possessive ‘s structure, so the word order of the sentence tends to be different from English. In the example above, the variable actually appears at the end of the sentence in German.

Linguistic unit Presented strings German translation
{1}’s file was downloaded by {2} String 1: {1}
String 2: ‘s file was downloaded by
String 3: {2}
Die Datei von {1} wurde von {2} heruntergeladen.Back translation:
The file of {1} was from {2} downloaded.
Or with a changed sentence structure:{2} lud die Datei von {1} herunter.

Back translation:
{2} loaded the file from {1} down.

Here again, the word order is different in German. Presenting this linguistic unit as three separate strings will likely result in some grammatically awkward constructions in other languages, if a translation is even possible at all. If you’re going through the trouble of localising your app into another language, you want it to sound as native and natural as possible.

The solution: Provide whole strings

The best way to ensure a beautiful translation is to present the entire linguistic unit within one string. A linguistic unit can be something really short like ‘{1}’s’ or a whole sentence.

But what about if you simply have to separate out linguistic units to allow for formatting, links, etc?  Here is where a translation management system like Smartling comes into play. Smartling will present whole linguistic units to the translators, but they are broken down into individual segments. The translators can re-order these segments so that they can create a grammatically correct translation while keeping all the formatting intact. They can even add an additional segment for the translation if their language requires it.

3) The problem: Too many options

Finally, we often come across strings that could be translated in a number of different ways depending on the context.


Coming back to the topic of gender in nouns, check out this example:

English German
Your friend {1} has accepted your invite. Friend is female: Deine Freundin {1} hat deine Einladung akzeptiert.Friend is male: Dein Freund {1} hat deine Einladung akzeptiert.Neutral translation: Dein/e Freund/in {1} hat deine Einladung akzeptiert.

 As you can see, the only way to provide a neutral translation is to use slashes to include both options, which tends to make the translation longer and harder to read for the user.


Verbs are translated differently depending on whether the subject is singular or plural, or which person it refers to. Here is a simple example:

English German
I ran Ich rannte
You ran Du ranntest
He/She ran Er/Sie rannte
We ran Wir rannten
You ran Ihr ranntet
They ran Sie rannten

If you present the verb ‘ran’ as one global separate string to then produce phrases like ‘I ran’, ‘you ran’ and ‘they ran’ this won’t work, because as you can see in the example above, the translation will be different for each ‘scenario’.

The solution: Create separate strings for each scenario

The best way to get around this, is to present each scenario separately to the translator. For example:

English German
Your friend {1} has accepted your invite.
Context: friend = female
Deine Freundin {1} hat deine Einladung akzeptiert
Your friend {1} has accepted your invite.
Context: friend = male
Dein Freund {1} hat deine Einladung akzeptiert
Your friend {1} has accepted your invite.
Context: friend = gender not known
Dein/e Freund/in {1} hat deine Einladung akzeptiert.

If you would like to talk in more detail about best practices for code that is fit for localisation, or if you’d like to find out more about Smartling as a translation management tool for your app translation, please get in touch.