Context is everything when it comes to translation

If you ask a translator: “How do you say x in y language?”, their answer will likely be: “It depends on the context”. Context is everything when it comes to translation.

The market information

To make the most of your international content, provide your translator with as much context as possible!

Brief them with the following:

👉 Target audience: who are you talking to? (age, nationality/culture, interests, income, position, etc…)

👉 Tone: conversational or formal?

👉 Purpose: what’s your CTA (call to action)? What do you want your audience to do?

👉 Knowledge: how much does your audience know about your product/service or the subject matter?

Actually, you should think about these before you even start creating your content, and then make sure your translator knows them, too. That way they will be more likely to convey the same message and reinforce your brand identity.

UI strings

Whether it is an app, a website or software UI, the translator is often handed a list of strings in an Excel file with little or no context.

If the app is still in development, the translator cannot interact with it and will be clueless as to how to render the string in another language.

Context will speed up the translation process. Ideally we like to see screen shots of UI screens. However, if you really cannot provide these, could you insert a comment in that Excel file you sent to give context?

👉What does the string refer to: a button? an error message? a list item?

👉If it is an error message, what is it about?

👉Is it a placeholder or a variable?

👉Any character limit?

Here is an example:


err_InvldEmail

Enter a valid [&1]

This message displays if an email address is not entered. The following information will populate for this message: [&1] = email address.

🤔Without this additional detail, the translator will ask you: “Enter a valid what?”

English is a wonderfully concise language, and nouns have no gender. In French, the article “a” will vary (un / une) and the adjective must match the gender of the noun.

In this case, the client provided the context: the missing word in the string is “email address.” In French it is feminine (une adresse e-mail), so now we can appropriately translate the string, leaving the placeholder, and be assured that the article and adjective agree with the noun that will be dropped into the string later.

Translation: Entrez une [&1] valide.

Et voilà.

Textual context

Textual context is really key when translating from a concise language such as English. Homonyms and homographs are very frequent yet depending on the context will be translated into completely different words in other languages. Words such as home, book or turn are perfect examples:

Book a call with us OR read our free book?

A turn of events OR a turn of a page?

Home page OR work from home?

Another source of confusion can be the use of nouns to describe other nouns. A single colour ink cartridge can mean a cartridge with 4 colours built in one (a single cartridge that will print in colour) or 4 individual cartridges (a cartridge containing a single colour). A good translator will always ask questions to clarify the context and will as for any reference material, especially when it comes to specialised terminology.

Situational context

Situational context refers to the factors and circumstances from the real-world environment which are affecting meaning. This is what is currently making machine translation so difficult to implement: it is hard to replace humans and their ability to live through communicative exchanges in real life, because the situational context involves the reasons why something occurs, references to the social, political or economic nuances.

A classic example is the form of personal address (“you” in English).

Who is talking? A millennial or a 19th century book character?

With whom? A colleague, friend, a boss, a doctor or Le Président de la République?

Are they talking or writing?

Is this happening now or 50 years ago? 

When you adapt your product and your marketing campaigns to your target countries, you need to take into account their culture, traditions, and values.

Marketing experts will tell you that your specific message needs to get across to your audiences so that you can meet them where they’re at. The same is true for your international audience.

Work with a professional translator and localiser who will help you get your message across the borders.

And please: Provide your translator with context!

What makes an excellent translator? 5 traits you should look for

Many businesses and organisations find the process of hiring translators quite daunting, simply because they do not know what to expect and what to look for. Here are the 5 most important traits you should consider:

1. Quality and expertise

It goes without saying that this is the most important aspect of being a translator. Quality does not necessarily mean a degree in translation. Not everyone who has a master’s degree is necessarily a good translator. In fact, it depends a lot on the type of translation you require. There is a strong argument for hiring a lawyer-translator when you need a legal text, or for an IT expert when you need your software product or website to be translated. For marketing translation and transcreation, the most important thing will be a flair for language and creativity. In short: quality rhymes with specialisation. It is vital that the translator you choose is specialised in your industry and expert in this field.

2. Reliability

This is equally important. Even the fastest, the most competitive and highest quality translator will not be any good to you if they consistently deliver late. Part of making sure that this does not happen is to agree realistic deadlines in the first place. Beware of translation agencies who in a catchy phrase promise you fast, cheap and quality services! There are no miracles: a reliable quality service requires realistic timescales. The unexpected can happen to all: a power cut, a domestic emergency or illness. Or simply, while working on your project, the translator has uncovered that there are some hidden complexities or specialised domains outside of their usual field of expertise that will take longer to investigate and translate (e.g. legal content in the middle of a medical translation).

In these situations, another key attribute of a good translator comes in:

3. Communication

A reliable quality translator will communicate effectively and proactively with you. If they realise that “there is trouble ahead” meeting a deadline, they will get in touch with you straight away and will not wait until 1 hour before the deadline or until it is passed. They will think ahead, pre-empt problems and manage your expectations.

4. Ability to deal with feedback

Let’s face it: this is tricky. I will always remember the days when I was a software tester and I had to deliver the “bad news” to developers that their piece of software had defects and did not work. Most of the time they were not happy, taking it almost personally, as if the code was their baby. But that is kind of normal: they were simply professionals, proud of their work. Good, professional translators are proud of their work, too, but they should be able to receive and accept feedback from their customers courteously. Not only that: they should actively seek it.

5. Caring attitude.

Besides being courteous and reliable, a good translator has a positive attitude to their work and industry. As linguists, they are genuinely passionate about what they do. As industry experts and service providers, they genuinely care about your brand and product and they want it to be translated and adapted in a way that will allow you to reach out to those global markets successfully.

What are you looking for when you’re working with (or, looking for) translation providers?