Translating Words With Multiple Meanings

You can crash an automobile, the Stock Market, a party you were not invited to or cymbals together to make a sound. You can describe a flowering plant as a noxious weed or a more-desirable garden flower. Maybe that plant is yellow, but your hair is blonde. You can create, but what do you mean when you use create? Are you building, constructing, erecting, composing or imagining? When you are using the word human, are you talking about a male, female, child, adult, bachelor, father mother, sister? Are you taking your money to the bank or sitting on the bank of a river? If you use the seemingly simple word “on,” how shall you use it? Is it a preposition? Is it on top or on the table? Perhaps it’s an adverb where you put your shoes on? Or an adjective when you are putting the game on in 20 minutes? The list is quite long for such a tiny word; you can be on call, on the roof, on cloud nine, on edge, on fire, on purpose or on the phone.

So many meanings, so little time, so many ways translation can go awry. You simply can’t translate without pondering the meaning behind the words, the semantics. As we know well, translation based on one-to-one substitution is seldom acceptable and never acceptable in this instance. Here are a few issues that you may have come across in your work and some ways to resolve them.

Finding the Meaning

Meanings of words evolve over time as language evolves. The British word, treacle, now means molasses, yet it’s definition was not always “a thick syrup produced by the refining of sugar.” It’s derived from the Ancient Greek word for the bite of a wild animal. Then, the meaning broadened to refer to any injury. From there, it morphed into the medicine used to treat injury. Then it evolved to refer to the sweet substance added to medicine to make it taste better. The most recent rendition is one such sweetener we all know-molasses. Seems like an odd path to follow, yet the word’s previous meanings motivated its metamorphosis. Words develop and shift, gain meanings and lose them. What happens to a word in one language will not happen exactly the same way in another. This adds to translations complexity and difficulties.

When the Spanish talk about fish that are swimming around, they use pez, yet if they catch that fish and cook it for dinner, they call it pescado. In English fish is fish whether it is part of fish and chips or in our lakes and streams.

Translators face these dreaded multiple meanings all the time; which is why they need to have thorough knowledge of both languages and an ability to deal with differences in meaning that appear insignificant until you cross over to the other language, something no computer can do. It’s job security for translators, really.

Paying attention to multiple meanings is especially important in marketing and advertising where word play is often used and multiple meanings abound. Take the word “power,” a favorite with pharmaceutical marketers. Imagine a headline “The Power to change your life,” accompanied by a photo of an electrical cord. In the headline, power is intended to indicate strength. But power also means electricity. Now consider other languages. The Spanish use the colloquial alternative to electricity, or “lights.” Thus, the double meaning would be lost in translation if the original headline is used, unless, of course, your company is a lighting company with products so exceptional, they really do change people’s lives.

Be specific… or Not

Multiple meanings must be handled using sematic criteria, both general and specific. Knowing the general topic points translators travel in the right direction, enabling them to choose how different words will be used in the target language. For example, the word “run” is generally known to indicate a pace faster than jogging. But what if a river ran dry, or someone is running a company, or a meeting ran long, or someone ran a man down. Did he run over him with a car, speak out against him or catch up with him? Thankfully, most words and phrases don’t appear in isolation, so context clues can save the day.

Knowing if the topic is generalized or industry specific can meant the difference between calling a bus, a vehicle to transport multiple people from point A to point B or a computer component into which cards can be placed.

Consider the Context

Being sensitive to total context, your audience and important details such as regionalisms and culture is key. For example, ‘thank you’ in Japanese is dependent upon whether or not the person being thanked was obligated to perform the service and how much effort they put into the service. In English we can say ‘thanks a lot’ or ‘thanks much,’ but in Japan’s immensely polite culture, those two words are much more intricate and convey many more meanings in different situations. It is something to keep in mind.

One example of how an insensitive translation can have serious repercussions is the Cold War remark made in 1956 by Nikita Khrushchev, head of the Soviet Union, who had been complaining about the United States. His off-handed remark was translated as “we will bury you.” This remark left an indelible and infamous mark on the minds of all Americans. Believing Communism to be a superior system to Capitalism and predicting that Communism would outlast Capitalism, Khrushchev actually said something along the lines of “Whether you like it or not, we will be present at your burial.” Assuming that the Russian word for “bury” could only be translated one way, as “we will bury you,” unnecessarily raised tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union perhaps needlessly prolonging the Cold War.

So, you see, multiple meanings are ever-present and important. Know how to use them well and be prepared for any instance that comes your way. And stay tuned for next month when we discuss how multiple meanings are by far the most important reason why computer translations fail (and always will fail) when it comes to accurate language translation.

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