Translation Methodology

We have previously highlighted that we believe translation to be an art and not a science. There are many reasons why this is the case and one of them is the need to select the most appropriate translation methodology.

Translation is the practice of rendering content written in one language in another language. This sounds like a relatively straightforward task for anyone who is fluent in both languages.

Unfortunately, this is far from the case.

Accurate translation strategies

All languages are unique and complex. They have developed over long periods of time, and most are in a constant state of flux. Outside influences and the multicultural nature of many societies see languages change, sometimes surprisingly quickly. New technologies demand new vocabulary while social norms can be transformed, rendering certain expressions, concepts or words unacceptable.

Professional translators must adapt to the evolving natures of the languages they work with and consider context.

They must also adopt the right translation methodology or methodologies for the project they are working on. Their choices in this regard are important and are beyond the current ability of machine translation.

What is translation methodology?

Two principal types of translation are generally recognised, and these are direct translation and oblique translation. Both types of translation give translators multiple methodologies to consider.

Direct translation methodologies tend to be the most appropriate choices when the source and target languages are similar in grammar and structure and when they also express concepts in similar ways.

Oblique translation methods are better choices when dissimilar language pairs demand changes of meaning, grammar and style.

Such changes may be necessary to produce outputs that are accurate but that are also comprehensible to the target audience and culturally appropriate.

Direct translation methods

With direct translation, there are three methodologies that could be adopted:

Literal translation

This is the practice of attempting a word-for-word translation that remains as close to the source text’s grammar and structure as possible.

The literal method of translation can deliver highly accurate results but cannot be applied universally, even within a single project. There will always be instances where any two languages will diverge sufficiently to demand an alternative approach.

Literal translation can easily result in nuances of the original material being lost in translation. Outputs will be comprehensible but may express the meaning of content in ways other than those that would be usual or most appropriate in the target language.


Most languages feature “borrowed” words. These are words that have been drawn directly from other languages. These words can become the primary means of expressing the meaning concerned, to the extent that many speakers of the language would not realise that the words have been borrowed.

For instance, the English word loot meaning “stolen goods” was originally borrowed from Hindi. Languages and cultures vary in their resistance to borrowing words, but such words can be found in most languages.

When translators retain a word or expression from the source material, this is known as borrowing and is a method that is employed in instances where there is no suitable equivalent in the target language. Words and expressions relating to food, clothing, music and art are commonly borrowed to preserve the cultural context of the source material.


Calque methodology, also known as loan translation, is the practice of delivering a literal translation of a phrase to create a new term in the target language. For instance, Adam’s apple is a calque of the French term pomme d’Adam.

While calques often work well, there are dangers with this methodology as the resulting translations can be confusing, humorous, clunky or offensive.

Oblique translation methods

When direct translation methods would produce inappropriate outputs, oblique translation methods must be utilised. There are seven different methods to consider:


Languages vary in their sentence structures and so literal translations preserving the sentence structures of the original texts can result in largely comprehensible but awkward outputs.

When translators change the order of words in a sentence to reflect the structure of the target language, this is known as transposition. This method may also involve changing the nature of words such as changing a noun to a verb.

A literal translation into English of the French phrase “l’homme avec la chemise rouge” would be “the man with the shirt red” but transposition would produce the more appropriate output “the man with the red shirt”.


Modulation is the practice of using different phrases in the target language to that which appear in the source material. The phrase chosen will express the same meaning as the original but would sound more natural or appropriate to the target audience.


Often utilised to tackle the translation of idioms, equivalence involves choosing completely different expressions in the target language to those used in the source text.

Also known as reformulation, equivalence can be the best approach to translating marketing slogans, film titles and other creative material. The aim is to communicate the same idea or sentiment as that expressed in the original text but in a way that would better resonate with the new audience.

Movie titles are particularly problematic for translators as they often feature idiomatic or slang phrases for which there are no direct equivalents in other languages. A good example would be the movie American Hustle as word hustle boasts a nuanced meaning approximating to “making money through clever, underhand means”. A literal translation would have resulted in a rather lengthy film title in many languages! The movie was released in Spain with the title “La Gran Estafa Americana” meaning “The Great American Swindle”.


In translation methodology, adaption takes reformulation further to render outputs that boast references to the target culture. Also known as cultural substitution, adaption is particularly useful when translating such content as sporting idioms or national rivalries. For instance, baseball terminology would not be readily understood in countries where the sport isn’t played or is a minority sport. It would be more appropriate to express “hitting a home run” as “scoring a hattrick” when the target audience would be more familiar with football.


This is the methodology employed when an aspect of the source language has no equivalent in the target language. This could be a grammatical element or a cultural construct and will usually impact an entire text rather than a single sentence. For example, in English there is only one word for “you” whereas French features the informal “tu” and formal/plural “vous”. The nuance of formality can be lost in translation but a careful choice of words throughout the text can compensate for this.


As you might expect, reduction is the practice of removing words from the translated text that feature in the source text as they are redundant in the target language. Reduction is utilised in situations where a concept is expressed as a phrase in the source text but where there is a single word that conveys the same meaning in the target language.


The opposite of reduction, expansion is the technique of adding rather than removing words. Expansion is necessary when a concept is expressed by a single word in the source material, but no equivalent word exists in the target language and so a phrase must be utilised instead.

Both reduction and expansion can prove problematic when translating any content where the output must be of a certain length. Text may need to fit neatly into web pages or into brochures and instruction manuals.

The expansion and contraction rate of translations between language pairs can be predicted to some extent. This means that the potential for expansion and contraction can be considered when designing pages, marketing materials and documents into which translations must fit. However, translators will always face challenges in this regard.

Making sense of translation methodology

The right translation method to employ will vary from one project to another and from one section of a project to another. The nature of the material, the similarity of the languages concerned, and any space limitations must all be considered by the translator or a translation team.

The aim is always to produce translations that accurately render the meaning, style and tone of the source material but that feature words and expressions that are easily understood and feel appropriate in the target language.

Translation requires knowledge, skill and good judgement. It is most certainly an art.

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