Word for word

I love Latin phrases. The word verbatim means ‘word for word’ and it is used in legal documents mostly. In the translation industry, it is also used in the phrase ‘word-for-word translation’ to mean a translation that accounts for every word in the original document and that no word (as in meaning) should be left out from the translation.

There is confusion here, because word does not equal meaning. For example, dog by itself has at least two meanings: a) the four-legged man’s best friend and b) a way to address a man in a friendly way in some circles. The moment the word dog becomes part of a phrase, as an adjective (ie, dog days), the meaning changes. In dog days, we would all agree that it means days that have no relation to a dog.

Even among people and professionals working with translators on a daily basis, we find this subconscious confusion. That’s why, I suppose, back translations are popular among some translation buyers as a misguided attempt at performing translation quality control.

Yesterday morning (June 18), I found a wonderful play of words that illustrate this ongoing dilemma, the juggling of words with multiple meanings and its unintended consequences. In the comic strip Pearls Before Swine, created by the talented Stephan Pastis and published in yesterday’s issue of the San Jose Mercury News, Rat and Pig hold the following conversation:

-Where were you this morning? – asks Rat.
-At home. I’ve been spending every single morning listening to this really calming radio station. -replies Pig.
-Oh yeah? Do you know the frequency?
-I just told you.
-Told me what?
-I listen to it every single morning.
-Do you know the frequency with which I want to punch you angrily in the head?
-Oooh. Have I got the radio station for you.

We all understand the basic truth that a word has more than one meaning, even dozens of meanings, but we don’t stop to think about it in our daily conversations because we use context and situation to guide our coding and decoding of meanings. When it comes to translation, however, we stumble when we face a familiar word with an unfamiliar meaning. Competent translators are used to switching meanings to fit the situation, the document type, the medium and the audience. While most people would just react by jumping to the next familiar meaning –at the risk of inaccuracy and silly stylistic stumbling– competent translators have the right word at the tip of their tongue…and fingertips.

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Filed under Back translation, Etymology

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