Common Translation Terms Explained
Updated: Oct 25
Ah, jargon. The arcane yet necessary evil of every industry. When looking for or working with a translator, you may encounter some unfamiliar industry terms. While you're certainly entitled to plain-language communication as a client and we, the translators, are more than happy to clarify things, it wouldn't hurt—and might even be fun—to peek through the curtains a little. Here are some commonly used translation-related terms explained.
A / B / C language
The A-B-C language classification, more widely used in the interpretation world, is sometimes used by translators as well. The system describes a professional's proficiency in their working languages. Simply put, the A language is one's mother tongue or strongest language; the B language is the second language one is fluent in; and C language suggests a more passive and limited command.
Translation engages with words and languages, which do not exist in a vacuum. From converting units to rewriting jokes to switching references, some content needs to be creatively modified for it to work in another culture, market, or even political climate.
To have something back translated means to re-render the translated text back to the language it's translated from. When the text undergoes creative adaptation, the client may request back translation to get a sense of how the translation is presented.
CAT stands for computer-assisted translation and is not to be confused with machine translation. Industry big names include Trados, memoQ, Memsource, and Wordfast. Essentially, when you feed a document to a CAT tool, it segments the text, retains the formatting when the translation is exported, and makes it easier to keep things consistent for translators with buildable glossaries and saved translation memories. This is especially useful for texts that regularly go through new editions, where only the updated portion needs to be translated.
A certified translation means the translation comes with a certificate of accuracy. The translator must attach a signed certificate to state their qualifications and contact details, identify the document and language pair, and vouch for the accuracy and completeness of the translation.
In the United States, a certified translator is someone who has passed the certification exam of the American Translators Association. The pass rate, according to the ATA, is less than 20%, and the translator must undertake at least 20 hours of continuing education every three years to maintain the certification. Click here for my blog post on the ins and outs of getting a certified translation.
A dialect is a variation of a language that's particular to a region or a group of people. When ordering a translation service, it's essential to know who the translation is for. There is a difference between targeting, say, all English speakers in the world versus the US market. For your Chinese translation needs, click here to read my blog post on the differences and connections between Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Mandarin, and Cantonese.
The term false friends, or faux amis, describes the phenomenon where two words in different languages look similar but mean different things. For example, as I'm learning Spanish on Duolingo, I have to constantly remind myself that the Spanish word partido means game, not party. The Chinese phrase 热血沸腾, which is literally "hot blood boiling," does not equate to "make someone's blood boil" in English and instead refers to zealous enthusiasm and excitement.
As volume is one of the key factors in translation pricing, sometimes the client might not need an entire document translated from start to finish. By gisting, the translator reads through the document to extract key information and presents the summary in another language.
A glossary is a list of terms with their corresponding definitions, usage notes, and translations. It's an important tool to keep the key terms and phrases in your translated assets consistent across the board.
Grammar refers to the entire system of language construction and usage. A native speaker status doesn't guarantee an impeccable mastery of grammar. Translators need to have an excellent command of the grammar of both of their working languages so they can parse and understand sentences correctly and write coherently.
When you're targeting a specific market or locale, it's helpful to have someone who actually lives in that target region to read through the translated text. This ensures the text is truly in tune with the ever-changing linguistic and cultural landscape.
ISO language codes
The International Organization for Standardization uses letter abbreviations to represent and classify languages. The 639-1 codes have two-letter formulations, and the 639-2 and 639-3 codes use three letters (the codes for Chinese are zh, chi, and zho). A searchable database for ISO 639 codes can be found here. In addition, we also use ISO 15924 codes for script identification, so Simplified Chinese is zh-Hans, and Traditional Chinese is zh-Hant.
To provide you with the right language service, we need to know what the text is written in and what language it will be rendered into. The two languages are known as a language pair, and "to" or "into" signals the direction.
Also known as word-for-word translation, literal translation follows the wording and phrasing of the original text closely, often at the expense of an idiomatic and localized reading experience. While this is to be avoided in almost all translation practices, it does have a place in official document translation, where the exactness of information and wording is more important than a pleasurable read.
Usually seen in the context of software, video games, and websites, localization makes sure everything is adapted to the local context. Even when a project is not specifically called "localization," considerations should always been given in terms of the local culture and market for appropriate adaptations.
Machine translation is the automatic translation done by a software. Google Translate, for example, is a machine translation engine familiar to many. MT is constantly improving quality-wise and when used well, can be a cost-effective tool. That being said, given the virality of hilarious mistranslations online, it should surprise no one that it's not always accurate, especially when the languages are in different families—think English and Spanish versus English and Chinese. There's also a data security issue to consider as your content will pass through a third-party server.
Machine translation post-editing is the process where the client explicitly instructs the content to be processed through machine translation before human translators are involved to edit and improve. This can be a cost-effective way for a large volume of boilerplate, lower-tier text for internal use but is not recommended for higher-stakes and end-user-oriented publications.
Phrasing is how an idea is expressed. A frequent challenge in translation is that the same idea is not conveyed in the same way in both languages, and the translator must know how to phrase it in a way that's natural and idiomatic. Click here to read my blog post on the three challenges in translation to get an idea of what makes it hard.
QA / QC
Referring to quality assurance and quality control respectively, QA and QC specialists catch errors and make adjustments to improve translation quality. The role is similar to what's commonly known as a reviewer or editor.
Register indicates the degree of formality, which varies based on what the text is about and who the text is for. A pamphlet talking about bike safety for kids is written in a different register than an academic journal article on the effect of helmet use. A translator not only renders the meaning of the text, but also chooses the right words, phrases, and sentence structures to achieve the appropriate register.
Source and target
You'll frequently see mentions of source and target texts, source and target languages, and source and target files. Source describes the original assets provided by the client, and target denotes the end products delivered by the translator.
No one can be expected to write equally well across all spectrums of subject matter. Specialization is a crucial factor to consider when looking for the right translation service providers. Each translator has their own unique interests, strengths, and backgrounds, ranging from broader categories like medical, legal, or financial to niches like patent law, robotics, or ancient scrolls.
A style guide dictates the client's preferred linguistic treatment, from when to spell out a number and when to use Arabic numerals to whether a foreign word should be italicized. A style guide ensures all your publications have a consistent look and usage.
Syntax is the arrangement of words in sentence formulation. Our beloved Yoda of Star Wars speaks in a way that would be flagged as syntactical errors.
Target audience is who the translation is for. The clearer and more detailed the end reader avatar, the better the translator can produce tailor-made translation that resonates with them.
TEP stands for translation, editing, and proofreading, which is the standard workflow for delivering quality translation.
Transcreation is a combination of translation and copywriting. The copy is heavily rewritten or completely reimagined to adapt the client's vision to another market.
Transliteration refers to phonetics-based translation when two languages use different alphabets. The name Alexander, for example, is customarily transliterated into 亚历山大 (yalishanda) into Simplified Chinese.
Hi, I'm Sijin. I'm an English-Chinese translator certified by the American Translators Association with seven years of professional experience. Whether you're an NGO that wants to amplify your message, a business that wants to communicate with your audience effectively, an individual with official document translation needs, or a content creator looking to have your work translated and subtitled, I would love to hear from you. Get in touch today, and I look forward to taking care of your text.