Vox Daily The Official Voices.com Blog

The Art Of Translation


By Stephanie Ciccarelli

April 17, 2012

Comments (3)

Chalkboard being drawn on, three figures saying Have you ever wondered how scripts get translated into different languages for voice-over artists to record?

I've been attending a workshop taught by a linguist-translator on this very subject and am excited to share some interesting things with you.

Discover more about how texts are translated in today's VOX Daily!

The Meaning Of Words

When we read any text, regardless of its nature, we bring to it all of our life experiences. Each of us sees the world in a certain way because of those experiences. Furthermore, each word has meaning based on what we have learned and experienced in our schools, interactions with family, friends, faith communities and the environment we live in.

If you've been in voice-over for any stretch of time, no doubt you've come across a few scripts where you could tell that the copy may have lost something in translation from the original text.

Perhaps you've watched programs that were dubbed or have read instruction manuals for appliances and electronics and can appreciate how a translation, for better or worse, can come across to the end user.

Last weekend, I attended the first of three workshops given by Rebekah Drew, a linguist-translator who has been working with the Teop people in Papua New Guinea on an enormous translation project. Her passions for linguistics and storytelling have added greatly to her ability to complete her work and pass her knowledge along to others.

What Makes A Good Translation?

When translating a text from the Source Language (SL) to the Target Language (TL), three fundamental principles of translation apply.

A good translation should be:

๏ Accurate
๏ Clear
๏ Natural

When referring to accuracy, the translation should express the intended meaning of the original message as closely as possible.

In terms of clarity, the translation should communicate the message in a way that people can readily understand.

Naturalness refers to how the translation should not sound unnecessarily foreign. In other words, you shouldn't notice anything odd like the improper use of a verb, words missing or so on. When read or spoken aloud, the translation shouldn't feel or sound clunky.

When a translation is being made, the people who will use the text in its target language are also factored into the process along with their life experiences and how they view the world.

Translation Issues

There are many issues that arise when a translation is attempted. Here is a list of just a handful of them:

๏ Unknown concepts from the source (UNK)
๏ Shared concepts with different meanings (DIFF)
๏ Figurative use of language (FIG)
๏ Assumed information (ASSM)

Unknown Concepts From The Source

A source may have concepts that are an integral part of the culture of the people it was first written for. That being the case, these concepts may not be known to other cultures. Sometimes, there may not be anything equivalent to what is being described and an image may need to accompany the term to better explain what it is and provide additional context.

Ex. The word "tent," meaning a portable canvas house as taken from an ancient Hebrew text, may not make any sense to someone living in Papua New Guinea. The Teop people have no equivalent for this term.

A special class of unknown concepts from the source (UNK) are key terms (KEY) that are frequently used and critical to understanding the source. In the case of a text such as the Bible, these key terms would be what some may consider "religious words" such as repentance, sin, reconciliation, church, synagogue, tabernacle and so on.

Shared Concepts With Different Meanings

Sometimes the source culture and target culture will have the same concept but it may be perceived differently as it relates to a given culture.

For one culture, a cat may represent a domesticated animal kept around the house as a pet whereas another culture may see the same cat as being a source of food. Likewise, a dog may be an acceptable pet for one culture whereas another culture will see it as a nuisance that carries disease...quite the difference, I think you'd agree!

Figurative Use Of Language

This issue has to do with metaphors and similes. Only very rarely do figures of speech translate in a direct manner from language to another.

Ex. The word "cornerstone," refers to a stone at the corner of a building uniting two intersecting walls.

What if the culture you are translating for doesn't build with stone and therefore has no practical reference point for this particular term? How would you describe what a cornerstone was let alone how someone could "be" a cornerstone? This is one challenge Rebekah faced when working with the Teop. Her solution was to use a different example based upon structures they were already familiar with regarding its core support such as a critically important pillar, beam or column.

Assumed Information

Assumed information is when in communicating with a group of people, we make assumptions about what they know about history, well-known people, places, practices of the time and so on.

These assumptions are easily made if the writer of the text was writing for their own people and culture. Their intended audience would already have a knowledge, appreciation and an understanding of these things.

Translation Terminology Review

๏ Source language (SL)
๏ Target language (TL)
๏ Unknown concepts (UNK)
๏ Key terms (KEY)
๏ Shared concepts with different meanings (DIFF)
๏ Figurative use of language (FIG)
๏ Assumed information (ASSM)

Do You Have Any Translation Stories?

If you'd like to comment on what I've shared or tell me about your own encounters with translation, I'd love to hear from you!

Best wishes,


©iStockphoto.com/Cristian Baitg

Related Topics: SAG


    Thank you for shedding light on this topic. I work in the European Spanish market and a lot of my work usually involves some amount of translation.
    On one job, I was asked to translate and dub a 3 hour DVD on a Trial Motorcycle Technique. The star, world champion Jordi Pasquet, obviously knows what he's talking about, I do not. So when I set out to do this, I wanted to allow him to speak using my voice. The markets were, The UK, The US and Australia, where it's a very popular sport. As mentioned, it had to be Accurate, Clear and Natural. It had to be free of phrasal verbs for the most part AND use industry standard lingo to sound natural. To add to the challenge, he's also instructing, so there are some times when he's pointing at, a wall for example... He says, "...and then you pop the front suspension like this and that will cause the rear suspension...". It was a "brain busting" challenge.
    The one good thing is, when I went to record it, I knew the script inside and out... every pause, every inflection, every emphatic punch. It was like I could teach trial, although I still to this day cannot do it! It received very good reviews within the community on it's content, the beautiful photography and the beautiful job of putting together an instructional video that "Really Works". Not one of the reviewers, experts in trial,even commented negatively on the translation or the voice over. My job was to transparently impart information with a voice that 3 diverse sounding markets would understand. So I count that as a success!

    Posted by:
    • Nodo420
    • April 18, 2012 8:49 AM

      Hi Stephanie!

      I loved reading your article! As a professional English-Spanish translator, an amusing part of the job is being aware of "false friends"...words that sound as if they are from the same Latin root, but in fact mean quite different things.

      In English the word "embarassed" does not translate into "emabarazada", which actually means pregnant. And in Spanish, to be "constipado" is not necessarily the uncomfortable intestinal result of a low-fibre diet, but simply a bad "cold". There are, of course, scores of others!

      Best wishes,


      Posted by:

        Hi Stephanie!
        A friend of mine told me about your blog! Thanks for posting such a great summary of my talk! I love how you've taken the concepts and applied it to your own context - it makes me happy to see someone making good use of the information from the class. :)

        Posted by:
        • Rebekah Drew
        • May 31, 2012 11:11 PM

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