It depends on the context ….

According to a colleague (stand up Jonathan Downie), the number of translators it takes to change a light bulb “depends on the context”. Okay, it is a phrase we translators use often. Why? Here are some examples from English and German.

1. “You can’t be too humble/modest here”
– in the context of learning or study, for example, this would mean it is good to be modest. In an environment with a lot of dominant people, it would mean you shouldn’t be too modest, otherwise you will get nowhere.

2. “Produkt X wird nur von Unternehmen Y bezogen”
– You could translate this sentence “Product X is only purchased from Company Y”. However, with the range of meanings of the little word “von” it could also mean “Product X is only purchased by Company Y”. That’s a real example where the translation was changed after two or three further sentences – because the context made the sense clear.

3. “Sanction”
– It can mean either a ban or restriction – political sanctions on imports, for example – or a sign of approval.

4. “Anhalten”
– A German verb which can mean “continue” or “stop” – a similar example is “einstellen”, which can mean either “to start” (when used reflexively) or “to discontinue”. It also means “to hire”, less easy to confuse but you still need the context to know for sure.

5. “Anlage”
– One of my favourites, the root means “[something that is] laid on/at” – so in German it becomes anything from an investment to a complex of buildings to a large machine or system to a green and pleasant park. Confusing? Maybe only if you are investing in a factory….

It’s not just a matter of showing forbearance towards the translator who doesn’t immediately understand what everyone in your company knows.

It also has important implications for the increasingly common practice of expecting a translator to “plug in” new parts of an existing text without reference to that text. It may look like a good way to save money – but producing communications where the reader will know his money from his machine because the translator has been allowed to read the – yes, that tired old word context – could be worth a few pennies.

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