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For translation software, see machine translation. For other meanings of translation see Translation (disambiguation).

Translation is the act of rendering text in one language - the source - into another, the target.

Among practitioners, a distinction is generally made between translation, where the source and target texts are written, from interpreting or interpretation, where the source and target are spoken. From the point of view of analyzing the processes involved (translation studies), it is perhaps more useful to treat interpreting as a subcategory of translation.

The translation process can be logically divided into two steps: 1. The meaning must be decoded from the source language, and 2. This meaning must be re-encoded with the target language. For precise translation, both of these steps often require knowledge of both the semantics of the language and the culture of its speakers.

A successful translation approaches two ideals:

  1. Fidelity, that is, it accurately renders the meaning of the source text, not adding, subtracting, intensifying, nor weakening any part of the meaning; and
  2. Authenticity, that is, the translation appears to a native speaker of the target language to have originally been written in the target language.

A rigorous word-for-word copy of the text would lose much of the impact of the writing, not only because cultural differences would be ignored, but also because linguistic factors such as idioms would be trampled upon.

To be a good translator, one must be not only at ease in the source language, but also a skilled writer in the target language. For this reason, most translators choose to translate into their mother tongue.

Table of contents
1 Modes of translation
2 History
3 Noted Translators
4 Translation Theory
5 External Links

Modes of translation

All forms of literature and speech can be translated, including novels, movies, computer and video games, poetry, speeches, and non-fiction. Different areas are of varying difficulty of translation, however. Computer and video games usually have Japanese as the source language and English as the target language.


Non-fiction works that are translated may include corporate and consumer documents, government works, and scholarly texts. Non-fiction is usually more straight-forward to translate than literary works, as meaning is more important than form and because the content is clearer and less metaphorical.

Therefore, some believe that translating non-fiction texts requires little knowledge of culture or artistic aspects, so this task generally falls to companies staffed by low-skilled workers. This includes the translation of manuals and other business and professional texts.

However, highly nonsensical translations may result if skilled writers in the source language are not used nor local factors taken into account. For example, differences in lexicon between two regions that use the same language may result in ridiculous or even obscene results. A quality translation will take this into account; this is known as localization.

Many governments also do a great deal of translating. For instance the government of Canada must translate all official documents into English and French. The European Union has many official languages and must employ a large number of translators.

Sometimes, treaties and other important agreements will also be translated. In these cases, accurate translation is often essential, as variation between two versions can result in confusion and misunderstanding. One example of problematic translation is the Treaty of Waitangi, where the English and Maori versions differ in certain important areas. Sometimes, to prevent such problems, one language will be declared authoritative, with the translations not being considered legally binding.

Scholarly texts and nonfiction books are usually translated by skilled professional translators. Metalanguage works, that is, works that discuss language, can be extremely difficult to translate usefully.


If the translation of non-fiction works is regarded as a skill the translation of fiction and poetry is much more of an art. Some writers, such as Vladimir Nabokov, have made a name for themselves as literary translators per se.

Many consider some forms of poetry to be almost impossible to accurately translate, depending on how well the form as well as the content can be rendered in the target language. This question was expertly explored, and a mostly positive answer given, in Douglas Hofstadter's 1997 book, Le Ton beau de Marot.


The translation of religious works has played an important role in world history. For instance the Buddhist monks who translated the Indian sutras into the Chinese language would often skew the translation to better adapt to China's very different culture. Thus notions such as filial piety were stressed.

The translation of the Christian Bible has long been of great import. St. Jerome is still considered one of the greatest translators in history for his work on translating the work into Latin. Jerome's translation was used by the Catholic Church for centuries, but even his translation met much controversy when it was released.

The Protestant Reformation saw the translation of the Bible into the local languages of Europe, and act condemned by the Catholic Church and one that had a great impact on the split between Protestantism and Catholicism. Martin Luther's Bible in German and the King James Bible in English had immense impacts on the religion, culture, and language of those countries.

See also: Bible translations, fan translation

Machine translation

The reason that machine translation - translation performed by computer programs - is not a straightforward task is that one does not translate words - the "surface structure" in linguistics - but rather the meaning or "deep structure." Since computers are not sentient, the meaning is inaccessible to them.

In recent years the long anticipated goal of machines assisting in the translation process has met with limited success. The goal of converting information from one language to another automatically is a major goal of natural language processing.

The international plaza of the internet has been a promising testing ground for these technologies, such as Alta Vista's Babel Fish. Such programs can produce results that are broadly comprehensible but which do not come close to idiomatic quality. Human translators are still necessary for the production of documents that are meant to be used in any generalized context.

However, in domains with highly limited ranges vocabulary and meaning, for example weather reports, machine translation can deliver excellent automated results.

Computer-assisted translation

Machine translation should not be confused with computer-assisted translation, which is the use by human translators of various software programs to aid in their work.

Besides standard dictionary and grammar software, a range of specialized programs are available for the translator. For example, translation memory software packages "learn" turns of phrase frequently employed to render standard phrases in the source language, and suggest them when they recur in the same or other documents.

Noted Translators

Translation Theory

External Links