The Importance of Context in Translation


Context please!

This is a seemingly straightforward request, variations of which are all too common among linguists—myself included. Though perhaps a bit curt, this request brings to light a frequent issue that all translators and reviewers face: the lack of context.

We often see ambiguous abbreviations, unclear phrasing, or even just have a single word, the meaning of which is unclear in isolation. For example, I remember coming across the word ‘Back’ while reviewing a gaming project. Lacking any context, the meaning was ambiguous. It had been translated in the sense of “go back” or “return”. However, after reaching out to the client to receive clarification, it turned out that it was intended to refer to the body part.

Thus, what might be crystal clear to the content’s author or to a client is not necessarily clear to its reader—or in our case, the translator. And such clarity cannot be expected: we cannot know the details of every product on the market, every event, every website.

Segmentation and Lack of Context

Another potential reason that lack of context is such a common issue is the way some modern translation or CAT (computer aided translation) tools work: the translatable content is often extracted from websites or other sources, and then broken up into manageable units, commonly known as segments or strings. These can be sentences, paragraphs, headlines, buttons etc., depending on the relevant project’s segmentation settings. Though certainly a useful feature (working on translations bit by bit is generally preferable, as translation memories function better, which saves everyone time and money), this can be challenging given the content often no longer appears in its logical order. One segment might have no relation to the subsequent segment.

Queries, Queries, Queries

What does the translator do when he or she feels more context is needed to deliver an accurate translation? First, he or she can attempt to seek out context on his or her own—either in reference materials (such as source files) or instructions the client provided, in key names of software products, on the web, etc. If this approach is not successful (or requires too much time), most translators will raise queries to the client—to which they might or might not get any answer. Some projects I’ve seen have required tons of queries, as little to no context was given, and the source strings were highly unclear or ambiguous. This not only leads to frustration on the linguist’s side, as this process is time consuming, but is strictly necessary to avoid potential mistranslations—which can lead to serious repercussions. The client’s time is also likely better spent elsewhere than responding to countless queries for each translation.

Reference Material

What is the best approach to suit both the translator’s and the client’s needs? If possible, the client should see if there is reference material or instructions available that can provide the context the translator so desperately seeks. Some CAT tools allow for this to be provided in a straightforward fashion: screenshots or videos can be uploaded directly into the software, or the engineer can provide explanations of tricky strings right within the software. The more information provided, the better!

Many of our continuous translation or other regular clients have learned from experience, and consistently provide such context before a project is launched. This not only gives the translators a better insight, it also keeps the number of queries to a manageable level. However, it would be impossible to foresee every last clarification that might prove necessary, so a handful of queries are still to be expected—just considerably fewer.

If the translators receive the support they need—both with regards to receiving reference material, and query answers—this indicates that the client wants their product content to be translated as accurately as possible. In the end, the client will be just as happy, as the quality of translations strongly depends on the context a translator has at his or her disposal.