Translation is a complex process, difficult to sum up with one word. In English, the term translation is used as somewhat of a catch-all. The same word is used to describe the communication of the meaning of a wide range of texts, from poetry and literature to technical documentation and legal files.

In reality, the techniques involved in translating different kinds of texts vary widely. Literary translation is a creative process and puts more emphasis on transferring the sense and meaning of the original work. Literary translators have to wrangle with metaphors, puns and other literary devices that don’t occur in other subject areas.

On the other hand, technical translation requires in-depth technical knowledge of the subject area and translators need to ensure the use of precise and consistent terminology. Technical translators often make use of Computer Aided Translation tools (more on this and other translation words below) in a way that is unfeasible for literary translators.

That’s quite a lot to be summed up in one word, isn’t it? Some languages are a little more expansive and, as Michael Emmerich points out in his article Beyond Between: Translation, Ghosts, Metaphors (link, Japanese has a wide variety of different terms that have no direct equivalent in English. These include: 改訳 kaiyaku (a retranslation), 重訳jū yaku (a translation of a translation), 名訳 meiyaku, (a celebrated translation) and 訳詩 yakush (a translation of a poem).

Within the translation industry there are different terms that are used, which aren’t always understood by the general public. Here’s a quick “translation” of some of these.

Transliteration – This is the conversion of one script into another. In the translation world, transliteration generally occurs with proper nouns. For example, the Cyrillic script in the Russian name Дми́трий is transliterated into the Latin alphabet as Dmitry for an English-speaking audience.

Machine Translation (MT) – It’s all in the name! MT is translation that is produced by a machine, with no human involvement. Although it often provides understandable results, MT suffers from a number of significant issues. Struggles arise from the fact that one word can have a number of different meanings that can be context-dependent and which a machine cannot take into account.

Computer Aided Translation (CAT) – Another example of machines helping the translation process, CAT involves a human translator utilising computer software to produce a translation. A translator or translation company can build up a Translation Memory of past translations, that future translations can be referenced against. When identical or similar words or phrases arise, the software will insert previous translations and the translator can consider if in this instance the phase should remain the same or make amendments where necessary.

Interpreting – Often confused with translation, interpreting is an oral skill where one language is communicated by a speaker and then expressed by the interpreter in another language. There are various types of interpreting but the most common ones are simultaneous, where the interpreter talks at more or less the same time as the speaker and consecutive, where the speaker pauses for the interpreter to pass on the message.

Adaptation – Sometimes called Free Translation, adaptation is when a word which has cultural connotations is replaced with a translation which has cultural connotations for the language it is being translated into. Some of examples of adaptation can be seen in our blog about Harry Potter translations (LINK).

Back translation – A back translation is a translation of a translation, which is carried out with no reference to the original text. Back translations are often used to check the accuracy of the original translation, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry.

Localisation – Often used for advertising, websites and software, localisation is a more specialised process than translation. It takes into account cultural differences and preferences in order to adapt the text to local needs and expectations.