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How Translators Use Context for Accurate Translations?

The word ‘context’ constitutes every aspect of our lives. Imagine how people could carry on daily conversations at work, at home, or through text without a shared and established context that they are aware of. Communication could simply go into complete chaos.

The same way context is established in casual conversations is also carried through content creation, either the filming or writing of creative content. 

But context doesn’t only stop at the process of content creation, it is part and parcel of translation as well, many things could go wrong in translation without a proper understanding of context. 

In this article, we’ll dive more into context in translation to explore its importance and its types.

Read more: Choosing а Translation Services Vendor: In-House, Freelance, or Outsource?


What is Context in Translation

Consequently, in translation, context refers to the situational and linguistic aspects of a text. It answers questions like:

To whom is this text/document/content targeted?

What important events does it refer to?

What is the intended tone of voice that needs to be delivered, and why?

What does the writer want to address?

What function does this text do?

What are the cultural references implicated in this text?

In short, it’s like giving keys to the translator that are necessary for understanding the essence of their project, and therefore help them perform it well.

Therefore, a translator goes into the background of the text to understand the text. They first decontextualize the text, to re-contextualize it into another language. 

For example, the idiom ‘Under the weather’ in English risks ambiguity without context. In one sense it could mean ‘feeling sick or ill’, in another it could attain its literal meaning. 


Context Types in Translation


Visual context

Imagine you’re working on a website or App translation from English to Arabic. One element of visual context would be how the text appears on the user interface in real-time. 

This is extremely helpful, given the factor of text expansion or retraction. When translating from one language to another, the word length between languages varies, which affects how your website and application look to the audience. 

Providing that kind of visual context can shortcut many back-and-forth between translators and the design team.


linguistic context

Any word in a given text gains or loses meaning or value according to its relation to other words next to it and to the whole text at large. 

It occurs many times in academic research papers that one word, let’s say ‘colonialism’ is associated with several meanings and impressions, sometimes you will find in one paper that a central expression gains or loses meaning depending on the researcher’s analysis and findings. Therefore, the word ‘colonialism’ in the introductory paragraphs might refer to a general conception of ‘the effects of colonial history’, and later it might gain additional meanings like ‘the mini scale colonial influence that people have on each other’. 

A straightforward example of linguistic context is of the word ‘tie’, it could refer to a ‘knot’, or a ‘draw’ in a match.


Situational Context

The situation context is the set of factors (body language, and cultural and political references) that define a text. 

In English, the word “thumbs up” is often used to indicate approval or that everything is okay. However, in some cultures, such as in parts of the Middle East and West Africa, the gesture is considered rude or offensive, or at least not used as pervasively. 

Moreover, sometimes the process of recontextualizing entails appropriating certain religious or cultural aspects to the target reader.

In some Western cultures, the color white is often associated with weddings, symbolizing purity and new beginnings. However, in some Eastern cultures, such as Chinese and Hindu, white is traditionally worn at funerals and is associated with mourning and death.

Read more: Types of Translation


Why Context in Translation Matters

Context is particularly crucial for professional translators, let’s quickly sum up its benefits below:

  • Provides necessary information to help avoid translation inaccuracies.
  • Establishes the tone, style, and register of the text.
  • Provides clues for the meaning of words and terms to solve ambiguity.
  • Helps translators accurately translate homonyms.
  • Unveils cultural background and references.
  • It’s crucial in avoiding critical errors, especially in highly specialized translations like legal, manufacturing, or medical ones.


Common problems that can occur when translators don’t take context into account


Idiomatic expressions

Idioms are probably one of the most recurrent textual elements that require a solid understanding of the contexts. Idioms are culturally generated creative ways of expression. Translating them requires searching for their idiomatic alternative in the target language if it exists. Understanding the context saves translators from attempting silly literal translations of idioms.


Cognates translation

Cognates are words in two languages that have a similar meaning, spelling, and pronunciation due to their common origin.

Two words that look similar in different languages could have the same meaning, or could not!

 The words Nation and Information are the same in Spanish “nación” and “información”. This is a cognate.

However, what do you think of the word “embarazada” in Spanish? It might occur to you that it’s a cognate of “embarrassed” in English, which is not quite true. 

“Embarazada” means pregnant, yet it looks similar to the word “embarrassed”. This is just one example of how context could dodge such an annoying mistranslation. 


Inconsistent Terminology

Context helps translators choose the appropriate terminology for a specific subject or industry. Without context, the use of terminology might take a blow, not only might they be inconsistent, but they might also not match the text.


Failure to Capture Intent

Context mediates the writer’s intent and tone. Without enough context, the translator might misinterpret such linguistic factors, which can drive the translation in a different route. This is quite evident in literary translations which not only require a professional translator, but also someone who has a sense of the literary effect.


Real Life Consequences

In various fields, inaccurate translations can have significant consequences. For instance, in healthcare, they can lead to fatal errors, while in legal contexts, they might result in wrongful convictions, or result in losing the credibility of the legal document when the translation misinterprets or changes the context.


Fast Trans your go-to translation company

Fast Trans prides itself as your go-to translation company across the MENA region, but why exactly so? 

We have gathered up an in-house and outsourced team of certified translators who have demonstrated years of experience in more than 20+ translation services. Over the years, Fast Trans has gained the experience of giant real estate clients like Emmar, ZED International, and Orascom Developments, in addition to other loyal clients like Etisalat, and Honeywell.

In other words, we know what it takes to deliver high-quality translations fast at a competitive price compared to other translation companies in the market. 

Your journey with Fast Trans starts right here.

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