Translation Techniques: Battling Discrepancies Between Languages

translation techniquesTranslators have a lot of different things to consider before diving into to translating a text. The discrepancies in grammar and vocabulary between languages makes it difficult to literally translate every text word for word. In order to account for this, translators use a wide variety of translation techniques in order to accurately translate any given text. If you have ever tried to use a free online translation service and received a translation that didn’t make much sense, you’ve realized how difficult it can be to translate from one language to another. Professional translations are completed by trained professionals who know the tricks of the trade.

If you’re interested in learning how to translate to or from English, you’ll need to have a good grasp on the rules of English grammar. Udemy has a great course that will get you geared up and ready to translate!

Direct Translation

Direct translation can be used when there are not many structural differences between the two languages, and when the concepts presented can be expressed in both languages.


Borrowing is when words are taken from one language to another without any translation. This is seen in English frequently, when using words such as résumé, à la mode and café (all borrowed from French). Borrowing is also used when there is no word available in the target language to express the same idea; this can be seen when new concepts or technology are described. 


A calque is when an entire phrase is borrowed from another language and translated word-for-word instead of conceptually. Oftentimes when various idioms, metaphors and phrases are translated from one language to another word-for-word, the original meaning of the sentence is completely lost. As a simple example, the word ‘kindergarten’ in German translates literally to “children garden”. However, the word ‘kindergarten’ in English simply refers to the year of school between pre-kindgergarten and first grade.

Literal Translation

A literal translation can be used between some languages but not others. Literal translation, although it seems like it, is not a word-for-word translation. It is only used when the structures and concepts of the language run parallel to each other, allowing the proper imagery and style to come through.

Oblique Translation

Oblique translation techniques must be used when the language cannot be translated to the target language without altering the grammatical structure or style.


Transposition is where the location of various parts of speech within a sentence are switched based on the particular language. In English sentences, the verb is often closer to the beginning of the sentence. Yet in Spanish sentences, the verb is often closer to the end of the sentence. In order to translate one to the other, the placement of the verb must be altered. It is also possible to change the word class without changing the overall meaning of the sentence. For example, changing “eating is very important” to “to eat is very important” does not affect the meaning.


Modulation consists of altering a phrase from one language to another to convey the same meaning. This is commonly used when the translation of a phrase from one language to another is awkward. For example, a translator may change “it is not complicated to learn how to eat” to “it is easy to learn how to eat”. Although the two phrases mean the same thing, the latter suggests that learning how to eat is easy, as opposed to the former which suggests that it was initially thought to be a difficult task.


When translating difficult phrases such as idioms, the translator needs to understand the meaning behind the idiom (or cliche, or proverb, etc). For example, the idiom “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket” would be lost on someone of another language if it was directly translated. Because of this, translators often translate these phrases into easy-to-understand equivalents. The phrase “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket” may be translated to “keep your options open” in order to be understood in various languages. There are phrases in some languages that simply cannot be expressed directly in other languages, which is where equivalence comes into play.


Adaptation is when something that is expressed in one culture is expressed in a completely different way in another culture. This is often used when translating texts such as poetry or advertising, and is commonly seen in references to pop culture. If an American English show references Cher, for instance, the Spanish version may reference Enrique Iglesias instead.


Compensation is when something simply cannot be translated, so the meaning is offered somewhere else within the text. Using compensation requires a deep knowledge of both languages in question, and shows that the translator understands more than just a literal translation of the piece.

Effective Translation

In order to translate effectively, a translator must have a deep understanding of both languages in question. A successful translation will not just use one translation technique, but a variety of all of the translation techniques. Verbs may need to be switched around in a sentence, idioms may need to be changed in order to fit the target culture, and the literal translation of a phrase may need to be tweaked in order to appear less awkward to the reader. In some cases, phrases may need to be completely changed in order to avoid offending the target culture.

This is why we cannot simply feed text through a machine and have an instant, accurate translation. As you can see, translating is a long and difficult process, filled with different rules for different languages. Translating from English to Spanish usually doesn’t require a lot of difficult changes, yet translating from English to Arabic does. Humans specialized in different languages and cultures must study a text deeply and understand the meaning behind each phrase before being able to translate it. If you’re interested in becoming specialized in a specific language (or many!), Udemy has a great course on how to learn and memorize the vocabulary of any language.