Language is Culture: There Are No Translations Without Context

Translation is an extremely complex job which requires skills that go well beyond the ability to speak more than one language. All translations are intercultural in nature, which is why knowing the context around a translation is crucial if meaning is to be fully conveyed in a different language. But what do context and culture really mean?

Context and Culture

You will often hear translators say that they need more context before they can do their job. Translators are not dictionaries. Meanings are attached to the particular situation in which they were stated, and these situations are affected by a writer’s cultural background. Culture frames our perception of reality and acts as a filter through which we see the world because the schemas that we use to interpret information evolve from the view of reality that society imposes on its members. (Alptekin, 1993). Culture is related to language and communication in that it brings our understanding of the world, codes and symbols into the communicative exchange (Ramirez, 2018).

Translators are language experts, but they also need to be interculturally competent in order to translate both words and context. There are different types of context in the field which need to be taken into account at all times:

Situational context

The situational context, also called extra-linguistic context, is what we generally think about when we hear the word “context” in a broader sense. It refers to the factors and circumstances from the real-world environment which are affecting meaning, beyond informational context. These circumstances of use of the language are the ones making machine translation so difficult to implement: it is hard to replace humans and their ability to live through communicative exchanges in real life, because the situational context involves the reasons why something occurs, as well as the appropriate reactions to the situation.

Linguistic context

Linguistic context refers to the relationships and connections between the words within a particular text. It involves understanding without the input of assumptions and intent, which are part of the situational context. It is the linguistic context which allows for things such as collocations, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the habitual juxtaposition of a particular word with another word or words with a frequency greater than chance”. We know what to expect of a language when we know how to speak it. It is important to bear in mind that there texts cannot be decoded without knowledge about both linguistic and situational contexts, as they always work together.

Providing Context

What are we to do, then, when a translator asks for context? First, find out if the text belongs to a larger body of work. Content for translation is often extracted from a website or exists as part of a collection of manuals, guides, PowerPoint presentations, etc. Other texts related to the translatable content will surely help linguists decide on a particular term or the meaning of a phrase.

When texts are processed for translation through translation software, the phrases and sentences are turned into segments or strings. Often, these can be out of order or make less sense when stripped of their location or function on the page, leaving translators wondering: is this a headline? A button? To solve this problem, access to screenshots of the original, formatted, published content can be provided.

Some CAT tools such as memoQ lets project managers and clients add what is famously known in the industry as “reference material”. This material can include links, screenshots and videos, and offer translators their much needed context. Offering reference material does not mean that translators will not need any further clarification, but you will find that good translators can answer a great number of questions themselves when provided with reference material in anticipation of their needs for context.

There Is No Text Without a Context

Language is intrinsically humans, and humans live in societies. There is no language without culture, and therefore, no text without a context. If you are aiming for a quality translation, you need to take this into account, and try to accommodate the translator’s needs. They are asking for context for a reason!

  1. Alptekin, C. (1993). Target-language culture in EFL materials. ELT Journal: English Language Teaching Journal, 47(2), 136. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.aut.ac.nz/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edb&AN=55933634&site=eds-live
  2. Ramirez, E. S. (2018). Literature Review: The Intercultural Dimension. In The intercultural dimension in language classrooms in Aotearoa New Zealand: A comparative study

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