Putting Words in Context: Handling the Subtle Sentence

Without context, translations are little more than literal renderings of text and often miss the point your company is trying to make. It’s easy to imagine the end results of properly contextualized content—words and phrases that convey the same meaning in other languages as they do in English. However, capturing words in context isn’t so easy, because every language has different rules governing which word is most appropriate under the circumstances, and sentences contain subtle clues about context that can easily be lost in translation. To ensure high-quality, accurate conversions, you need two things: a basic understanding of cross-language context and the technology to make it possible.

More than Meets the Ear

Consider, for example, the word “crane” in English. It has one spelling, but three distinct meanings. It can be a noun, referring to a machine designed to lift heavy objects; a large bird; or a verb meaning ” stretch one’s neck.” Context is derived from surrounding words—if a sentence references construction or other machinery, the choice is obvious. If there are no identifying characteristics, however, it’s left up to translators—or a computer—to make the right choice.

As noted by the International Journal for Translation and Interpreting Research, context covers more than nearby words. Researchers define this surrounding text as “co-text,” since it can help clarify meaning within a document. They also point to four other aspects: chron-text, rel-text, bi-text, and non-text. Chron-text refers to changes in a document’s meaning over time, while rel-text describes the need to reference other documents to help clarify word choice. Bi-text analysis is necessary if a source is bilingual in origin, and non-text refers to the real-world setting of a document that helps identify its cultural and social significance, both of which help place words in context. It all boils down to this: decent translation is easy, but accurate, contextually correct translation is hard.

Seeing Is Believing

Want a real-world example? Look at recent mistranslations of the midterm report from the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family. According to the National Catholic Register, when the original Italian document was translated into English, a mistake was made that converted the word “valutando” into the English “valuing,” when it should have been “evaluating” or “weighing.” The mistake caused a number of unintended text interpretations, leading to a host of problems.

There is a way to let translators see their work in context as it will appear to customers. Available in real time to both you and your experts, Smartling’s in-context translation tool helps catch hidden mistranslations that look right on paper but are off the mark in real life. In other words, you aren’t translating blind.

Selecting the Best Translation Options for Your Business


About Doug Bonderud

Doug Bonderud is a freelance technology writer with a passion for telling great stories about unique brands. For the past five years, he's covered everything from cloud computing to home automation and IT security. He speaks some French, is fluent in Ancient Greek and a master of Canadian English — and yes, colour needs a 'u'.