Translation – What is it and How is it Done?

There are many misunderstandings relating to the question of what translation is, the types of translation that exist, and also the processes involved. We will not be addressing the complex issues of translation theory here, but will provide an overview to those not familiar with the profession.


The ultimate aim of translation is to render an original text from one language (source) to another (target), in such a way that the meaning of the original is fully understood by the audience, while retaining – as far as is possible – certain aspects of the original.

Some of these aspects include the tone, any underlying historical and cultural elements and humor, to name a few. Sometimes these are achievable, other times (unfortunately) they are not. The key to an excellent translation, as opposed to a merely adequate or even good translation, is to combine the meaning with the maximum number of other intangible subtleties. This will ensure that a reader of the translation undergoes almost the same experience as a reader of the  original. Will the respective readers smile, laugh, cry or nod their heads in appreciation at the same moments? If so, then you have a winner!

Those unfamiliar with the onerous task of the translator often feel that every word needs to be translated in order for equivalency of meaning to be achieved – a so-called “literal” translation. Often, this is far from the case; at times one word can replace up to a dozen, depending on the languages involved. By the same token, a literal translation can, and often does, impart totally irrelevant and even incomprehensible cultural nuances that make no sense in the target language.

As an example of the above, the author once witnessed a definite “miss” in a subtitled Russian film broadcast on Australian television on the multicultural channel SBS (a most excellent institution!). Two characters in this movie were described as being very alike –the literal translation from Russian to English is “like two drops of water”, whereas in English the equivalent would be “like two peas in a pod”. Like two drops of water is an expression that does not convey the meaning properly in English – it could mean that the characters are very small, wet maybe?

Specific challenges arise when translating historical materials from eras long past. It is for this very reason that the most widely read book on Earth – the Christian bible – comes in so many flavors. The most modern versions are written in easy-to-read styles, whereas conservative scholars often assert that only a classical King James’ version will do. There have even been versions of the bible written in SMS shorthand style and street patios. All of these versions have equal standing, in my view, as they each target a specific audience and fulfill different roles.


Normally, a translator will read a text from start to finish before translating a single word. This is not always an option, depending on the urgency of a particular task, but it is definitely desirable from the point of view of establishing context.

Next, the translator will assess any formatting requirements. Perhaps the source text contains a multitude of difficult and fiddly charts and tables, each requiring translation of captions, legends and other elements of the original. This can consume many hours of a translator’s time, and issues surrounding non-standard text translation must be discussed and clarified with the client very early on in the process.

In the modern era, industry specific software is used widely by many translators – depending on the volume of their work and the technical subject matter of translated materials. The use of this software is a virtual guarantee that consistency of terminology will be maintained throughout a particular text. According to the manufacturers of the massively popular software Trados “not using a translation memory can … reduce the quality of localized content…”.

The use of translation memory software should not be confused in any way with machine translation, which often produces laughable results. Anyone who thinks copying and pasting text into a box and clicking “translate” will produce anything even approaching adequate is gravely mistaken. Human translation is and will remain the only option when it comes to achieving quality results that are suitable for use in the academic and commercial worlds.

There are many other systems that professional translators employ, including quality assurance and quality control. Usually this means that there could be several people involved in the process.

Whomever you engage to conduct your translation jobs, it is essential that you only source people who have the appropriate accreditation from government or other acknowledged agencies. In Australia, for example, this is the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters. Professional translators also need to abide by a code of ethics, and instances of chicanery and improper behavior in the translation and interpreting industry are few and far between. Practitioners generally do their utmost to deliver you a professional service and a high-quality product.

Blair Denholm is a NAATI Professional Accredited Translator with a wealth of experience as a translator of the Russian language. He has an honors degree in Russian language and literature from the University of Queensland, and a diploma from the A.S. Pushkin Institute in Moscow.  Blair Denholm offers a full range of Russian-English translation services.

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