The difference between word-for-word translation and adaptation/localization and the difference between translation service and translation and adaptation to the field and local specificity

TRANSLATIONS: word-for-word vs. adaptation & localization

What does word-for-word translation mean?

Remember Google Translate a few years ago? Yes, it was terrible. Your input meant something, but the output was sometimes hilarious, sometimes unintelligible and sometimes plain awful. In short, unusable. That happened because Google had yet to master meaning. Well, a word-for-word translation may not be that bad, but it can be very close to what Google Translate used to do before it got a little better.

Imagine a child trying to translate their homework and just replacing the words in a text with words in the language they need to translate it to, but with disregard to phrases and real meaning. And if this little imagination exercise doesn’t do it for you, let’s continue by pretending you don’t know what “raining cats and dogs” means and after your translation you’d be reading a text that’s literally something like this: “the sky was dark and cats and dogs fell from it incessantly, splatting on the wet road”. It would seem like a scene from a bad horror movie, not like a rainy evening in the city. No cats and dogs were actually harmed in the process of writing this.

What does localization mean?

Localization is a special type of adaptation of a translated text to local specifics and culture.

When you translate a text word-for-word and you’re lucky enough not to encounter weird expressions that may mean something else entirely, you may convey the meaning to some extent, but when you localize and adapt to the specific culture and language you also use the grammatical structure of that language, it’s phrases and idioms, it’s nuances and color.

Translating verbatim may convey meaning, but it strips the message of its beauty and vitality, because nuances, expressions, patterns, phrasing in the origin language are lost on their way to becoming text in the target language.

What does adaptation mean?

Adaptation is what we do, usually in teams, to make sure we deliver a translated text that not only conveys the meaning of the original document in the target language, but that it also keeps the tempo, the flow and the color intended by its’ author in a way that doesn’t feel forced and is easy to understand by any reader whose native language is the target language.

Common problems

Especially in countries where English is the norm in work environments and has become mainstream in general, we can observe an expanding phenomenon: usually when speaking, but more and more in writing, too, people replace words in sentences with words from English phrases that may seem like they mean the same but actually mean something else, thus uttering messages that may convey other meaning than the original phrase in their own language.

For instance, when you say your friend Andrew joined the FBI you know this means he got lucky enough to be employed by the renowned agency, but a Romanian may just “translate” this and say something that in Romanian means that Andy joined forces with the FBI (making the fellow seem like a very powerful individual, like a superhero).

What to do to get a great translation?

Adapt and localize! This is work for teams of translators and natives and they pair up to deliver proper text in the required language for the required part of the world.

Why is translation teamwork?

You can get a very good translation by a non-native speaker of the target language. It can be done, but never as well as if a native speaker does the job. When a native speaker does it, there is implicit adaptation to the local specificity because the person speaks their mother tongue and will use words and expressions and terminology specific to the translation domain, but also to the area of the world and of the country (see differences between British English vs. American English).

Of course, services that include adaptation are more expensive because it involves a creative input from the translator – it is a combination of translation and creation (we call it “trans-creation”) and it is done by different translators: the non-native translates the text as a draft and then the native adapts it.

Where is this useful?

There are many applications: websites and online shops, movies, books… adaptation and localization are necessary pretty much in every domain.

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