Language & style – translation

By August 27, 2016 Blog No Comments

If you are a journalist working in a multilingual society, you may have to work in more than one language. Whether you gather the information in one language and write the story in another, or whether you write a story first in one language and then rewrite in another language, you face the task of translation. However, if you have a good command of both languages and follow a few simple rules, translation should not be difficult.

The previous three chapters on language and style have looked at structure, words and grammar. In this, the final chapter in this section, we provide some general guidance when working in more than one language. This is written only in English, but the processes we describe always involves two or more languages. It is possible that English will not be one of the languages you work in when translating. To avoid confusion, we will call the language which you are translating from (or conducting interviews in) the source language; and we will call the language you are translating into (or writing the final story in) the target language.

The principles of translation

The first thing to remember is that translation is the transfer of meaning from one language to another. It is not the transfer of words from language to language. You must translate the meaning of what is being said, rather than do it word-for-word. This is because languages are not just different words. Different languages also have different grammar, different word orders, sometimes even words for which other languages do not have any equivalents. The English spoken by a scientist may have words which a simple farmer cannot even start to imagine. And the farmer is likely to have words for things the technologist never dreamed of.

Simple steps in translation

We will start by talking about the simplest form of translation – the one where you already have a story written down in one language (the source) and you want to translate it into another language (the target). The steps to follow are:

Read the whole of the original source story through from beginning to end, to make sure that you can understand it. If you cannot understand everything that is said, you cannot translate it. If there are any words or phrases that you do not understand, you must clarify these first. You may decide that the ideas they express are too difficult to translate or not worth translating, but you need to know what they are before you can judge.
Do a first draft translation, trying to translate all the source material. But do not translate word-for-word. Remember that you are translating the meaning. When you have finished the first translation, you will now have a draft story in the target language.
Go back over the whole of your draft translation and polish it without looking at the source original. (You might even like to turn the source story face down on your desk so you cannot cheat.) Make sure that your translation reads well in the target language.
Compare the final version of your translation with the source original to make sure that you have translated it accurately. This is when you can make any detailed adjustments in individual words or phrases.

False friends

Beware of words or phrases we call “false friends”. These are words in the original source language which you retain in your translation, often because you cannot think of the correct translation. If you cannot think of the right word, how can you expect your reader or listener to? Of course, languages borrow from each other all the time. If a society comes across a new idea, it may simply use the foreign word without inventing a word of its own. Remember, however, that you are translating meaning, not words. If you come across a word in your original language which has no equivalent in the target language, perhaps you can use a phrase (i.e. several words) instead. For example, many languages do not have a word for “computer”. Instead of retaining the English word “computer”, can you translate it as “a machine which does brain work” or something similar? Be careful, though, that you do not try to re-invent the community’s language to suit your own way of thinking. If you have problems with translating words, consult experts or ask your colleagues to see if you can reach agreement on the correct translation. If you are a journalist working in a small language community, the words you decide upon could become the standard usage.

Writing style

You do not have to be an expert in linguistics to make good translations. If you know your target language well, you can usually hear in your head whether the sentence sounds correct in your translation.

Your translation should not try to duplicate the word order or grammatical construction used in the source language unless it is also correct in your target language. For example, some languages put the verb (the “doing word”) at the beginning of a sentence, some in the middle and some at the very end.

You do not have to use all the words from your source material for translation if your target language can cope without them. For example, we may say in English “The ship sank lower in the water”, whereas in another language the words “in the water” may be unnecessary because the words for “sink” in relation to “ship” already includes the idea of “water”.

Also, do not be afraid of using more words in your translation than in the original. Although in journalism you should aim to keep your sentences short and crisp, this must not be allowed to interfere with the clarity of the ideas you are trying to communicate.

Some other problem areas

Translation is a very big and complicated field which we cannot discuss in great detail here. However, the following are some other problem areas you might want to keep in mind:

Understatements and euphemisms

Be aware of the cultural differences in languages. Some languages like to hide unpleasant facts beneath understatements or euphemism. Euphemisms are mild or inoffensive words which are used in the place of harsh or hurtful words.

Some speakers might use humour in one situation which another language would not permit. Again, you must understand the meaning in context.

Linking words

Words such as “although”, “but”, “from”, “even” and a host of others are usually very important in English, as they are used to show the relationships between the words in your sentences. Getting these small words wrong can alter entirely the sense of the sentence.


These can sometimes cause problems in their different forms. There are, for example, quite distinct meanings for the words “can”, “may”, “must” and “should”. If you are not sure, it is best to avoid the construction altogether and say it a different way.


Some languages are more accurate than others in certain areas. For example, many language groups in Papua New Guinea have more than 10 different words for varieties of sweet potato. The Inuit Indians of Canada have different words for 20 separate things which in English we just call “snow”.

English is not a precise language in many areas. Be aware that a vagueness in English may not be acceptable in another language. For example, we can say “Doctor Smith” in English, whereas in Chinese we have to know the gender of the doctor to translate the word “doctor”.


Sometimes the exact meaning in the source language is left unclear (ambiguous) on purpose, in which case you should try to keep it that way. This is especially so when reporting claims, accusations and hearsay evidence in such things as police stories. For example, a person might be charged in English with “unlawful carnal knowledge”, which usually means a sexual offence against a person under the age of consent. You should not translate that as “rape of a child” or “sodomy of a little boy” or any other specific sexual act unless that is part of the charge. It is better in this case to use a phrase similar to “a sexual offence against a young person”.