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Translation Toolkit

Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics


3. Equivalence and Translation Loss

The discussion in Section 2 of SL-TL bias indicates that translation is an active process in which the translator needs to set up criteria for handling the relationship between the ST and the TT. It is also evident that in this process there is always likely to be some form of loss, even if that is not at the literal level but at the level of the conciseness of the expression:

ST1: Value Added Tax

Spanish: Impuesto sobre el Valor Añadido

Italian: Imposta sul valore aggiunto.  

ST2: Blind in one eye

Spanish: tuerto

Italian: guercio

In ST1 the source-language expression is more concise, whilst the two TTs include prepositional phrases, and the reverse is true of ST2. It may be that in translation the formal differences in these expressions could give rise to the loss on a play of words with thematic importance; for example, if ST2 were taken from a ST in which phrases formulated on the basis of 'eye' were linked to the theme of vision and perception.

The challenge of translation then is to accept that the translator's job is not to eliminate loss but to reduce loss by making conscious decisions about which ST features to respect, and which to sacrifice. This will be the focus of the rest of the tool kit.

Compromise & Compensation

Compromise arises from the need to palliate the effects of translation loss. When there is inevitable, unacceptable compromise then there is a need for compensation. Compensation is a matter of choice and decision; it is the reduction of unacceptable translation loss through the calculated introduction of less unacceptable loss. Translation loss can usefully be compared by analogy to energy loss since, in a machine, loss of energy comes about with any use or transfer of energy. In any process of translation there will necessarily be some loss. Engineers see energy loss merely as a problem which they must confront by designing ever more efficient machines, in which energy loss is reduced. Translation loss is by analogy any non-replication in the TT of ST features, including the addition of information or detail. The analogy is intended to suggest that translators should concentrate on controlling, and channelling loss. One means by which loss can be controlled is through compensation. The following notes aim to help suggest guidelines for judging when it is necessary, and techniques for handling it.

Categories of Compensation

Compensation in Kind is making explicit what is implicit, or implicit the explicit; this may be done through using a similar technique as that found in the ST, or by displacing the technique to another part of the TT. Consider the following example:

ST Obelix: Pourquoi parlez-vous à l'envers?

Jolitorax: Je demande votre pardon?

TT Obelix: ¿Por qué habla al revés?

Buentorax: Le ruego me perdone.

In the French ST the comic effect derives in the main from the fact that the answer Jolitorax gives is a calque in French of the English idiom, 'I beg your pardon', where a French speaker would expect, Plaît-il? or Comment?; that is, it translates the English words literally but attempts to respect French grammar. (See Section 4 for a discussion of Calque.) This ties in with the characterization of Jolitorax. In the Spanish TT Buentorax's reply is also a calque of the English idiom where a Spanish speaker would expect, ¿Cómo? or ¿Qué?. However, this may not be as obvious a source of humour to the Spanish audience, whose main second-language has been French and not English, at least until quite recently. The translators compensate in kind for this possible loss in that fact the Buentorax's answer is also a phrase stereotyped in business correspondence, meaning, 'Please forgive...', and which is also a joke about appropriate language use. Buentorax's answer is humorous because of its incongruousness in speech.

Since a translator may need to make explicit something implicit in the ST, he or she may need to opt for a narrower or broader term to do this:

TT1 Today there may be only 1000 big pandas left in the wild which still remain in the wild state, restricted to certain mountain areas in China's provinces...

(Literal TT from Chinese ST)

TT2 Today there may be no more than 1000 giant pandas left in the wild, restricted to a few mountain strongholds in the Chinese Provinces...

(Publ. TT from Chinese ST; Baker 1992: 28)

TT1 is a literal translation from a Chinese ST. The translator compensates in kind by particularizing with a noun in TT2, 'strongholds', whose frame of reference is narrower than TT1's 'areas', thereby creating a more plausible TT.

Compensation by Splitting or Merging

Compensation by splitting or merging tends to be employed where no single corresponding TL term for a ST word exists or when a ST phrase or concept corresponds to a single TT word. It necessarily implies the addition or removal of information by the translator. For example:

TT3 The Chinese people have already made substantial efforts to protect the giant panda, which is considered to be a treasure. However, we are at the crucial moment when the panda is in the condition of life-death-existence-extinction.

(Literal TT from Chinese ST) TT4 The Chinese people have already done a lot to protect the panda, which is considered to be a national treasure. Nevertheless, we are at a critical time for this species.

(Publ. TT from Chinese ST; Baker 1992: 58)

Once again TT3 is a literal translation from Chinese, and TT4 is the translator's published TT. It is an excellent example of merging. Chinese has a typical fixed expression which is very emphatic, 'in the condition of life-death-existence-extinction', and this has been merged with the idea of 'crucial moment' to produce the collocation 'critical time', where critical carries with it associations of being near death and thus under threat (e.g. 'on the critical list'). Although there is some loss in the conciseness of expression in TT4, it conveys the core sense of the ST extremely well.

As a general rule of thumb:

Addition of information is acceptable when:

1.ST confirms the accuracy of what is added;
2. the detail is important to the ST; and,
3. the information cannot otherwise be recovered.

Removal of information is acceptable when:

1. the detail is insignificant; or
2. it can be recovered from other parts of the TT.