Why Word By Word Translation Sucks

My English teacher always suggested that students read the whole paragraph first and only then open a dictionary and look up unfamiliar words. This was very wise advice because it helped me to quit a bad habit of the word by word translating. I don’t like the question “what does this word mean?”. I prefer “What does this phrase mean”, because a phrase has a solid, concrete meaning, while a word may have dozens of meanings.

Strange as it may seem, but the majority of words have multiple meanings. This means that almost every word with the exception of specific professional terms has more than one meaning. These meanings form a kind of a field (the so-called semantic field) with some integrative feature in its core. If you see a word as a field of meanings, you will notice that these fields are different in different languages. Here is my favorite example. In the late 1990s, a nice Russian lady visited her friends in the United States. She knew English quite well and could read Shakespeare, but, like many other people who studied English behind the Iron Curtain, she didn’t know basic everyday words. One day during her visit to America, she felt bad and went to a drugstore. She asked a pharmacist: “Do you have anal candles?” You can imagine the pharmacist’s feelings. After the emotional conversation, which I’d rather skip here, the pharmacist figured out that she meant just suppositories. In Russian, a candle and a suppository is one word “свеча”. What made possible to unite these two very different in terms of functionality words into one word is the shape. Something long and thing, like a pencil staying on its tip, may be called “a candle” in Russian. For example, when I see a skyscraper, I may say “What a candle!” (Ну и свечка!). So if you try to translate “анальные свечи” word by word, you’ll get exactly what the lady asked for in a drug store — anal candles.

The English word “pretty” confuses many Russians because, in our school classes, we’ve learned the only meaning “beautiful” for it. You know, “Pretty Woman”, Roy Orbison, Julia Roberts and so on. The phrase “She is pretty ugly” blew my mind when I had read it for the first time.

Being combined in a sentence and being placed into the context, each word realizes only one of its possible meaning, and we can figure out by the context which of the meaning was realized. Like chemical elements, words have a different valence, and in different languages, nearly same words may have a different valence, i.e. different sets of words to be combined with. For example, a word “глубокий” (deep, late) can be applied to winter and fall, but never to spring and summer. For the latter pair, you’d rather use “поздний” (late).

Besides the meaning, each word has its specific area of usage. In Russian, there are two words for brown — one is a general word “коричневый”, which may be applied to everything of a brown color, and another is “карий” which is used only to name a color of eyes.

So, the smart way to translate a text is working with larger units like phrases and paragraphs and base your translation on the context. Maybe, you feel a great temptation to say “thank you, cap”, in response to my article, maybe, I’m telling obvious things, but believe me, I’ve seen too many funny translations which are the result of the wrong approach. By the way, the title of this article translated word by word would be the best example why word by word translation sucks.

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