Translational Equivalence | I don’t think that means what you think it means

jonny/ September 16, 2016/ Blog, Translation/ 0 comments

What is translation?

Peter Newmark, a renowned translation studies scholar, defines the act of translation as "rendering the meaning of a text into another language in the way that the author intended the text" (Newmark, 1988: 5). Yet, it is somehow rarely this simple. For an age, the dichotomy of translational equivalence has reigned supreme in the academic world of translation; a cornerstone for all professional translators of the modern world, freelance or otherwise. It is a murky concept that, with every passing academic exploration, becomes ever more confusing.

Word-for-word translation - often associated with basic automated machine translation - is a concept that has been around for quite some time, with Cicero and St Jerome historically defining the translation theory of "word" and "sense" (Snell-Hornby, 1988: 10). Their initial dichotomy not only considers the term equivalence in relation to direct lexical exchange (word-for-word), but also a semantical one (sense-for-sense). The dictionary definition of the word, "of equal value, force, importance [or] significance" (Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Online, 2015), still causes debate over the extent to which a translation remains faithful to the source text. Traduttore/Traditore, as Susan Basnett (2012: 2) puts it.

Anthony Pym provides a useful explanation of functional equivalence. In his book, Exploring Translation Studies, he defends interlingual (Jakobsen, 1959: 57) equivalence stating that what is said in one language "can have the same value ... when translated into another language" (Pym, 2010: 8; emphasis in original). He uses the example of "Friday 13th" (bad luck day) in English compared to "Tuesday 13th" (martes 13) in Spanish. The meaning remains, but the lexical token is different. If you were to use "viernes 13" in Spanish, no one would have a clue what you were on about.

It can be safely proposed, therefore, that a literal word-for-word translation is not always the best option. French theorists Vinay and Darbelnet support this, claiming that literal translation is unacceptable in the event that, when translated, the word or phrase:

I. gives another meaning, or
II. has no meaning, or
III. is structurally impossible, or
IV. does not have a corresponding expression within … the [target language]
V. has a corresponding expression, but not within the same register.

Vinay and Darbelnet (1995: 34-35)

It is at this point that we return to Newmark's translation theory, in particular, the 'types' of translation (Newmark, 1988: 45) that have become recognised and widely accepted over the years. He indicates that there are eight types of translation. Each of the different styles presents its own characteristics, with some more influenced by source or target text. For example, a rigid 'word-for-word' translation might appear disjointed, reflecting the exact meaning of the source text words, regardless of grammatical accuracy, whereas a 'communicative' translation would read fluently in the target language, but might be a far cry from the actual words penned by the original author. You can see the dilemma.

translation equivalence Newmark

Newmark's 'types' of translation (1988: 45)

Skopostheorie (Reiß and Vermeer, 1984) is a theory that changed the way we see translations (particularly in the professional world). This purpose-based theory highlights that in order to achieve the 'best', most natural, translation, native pragmatics will overrule literal translation, prompting a natural re-wording to ensure fluency*. The definition of 'best' translation is still heavily debated.

*As a sidenote, this is why, for the most part, the ethics of professional translation dictate that you do not translate away from your native language - you don't necessarily appreciate the intricacies of language in your foreign tongue!

By identifying 'why' a translation is to be carried out, professional translators can refer to a client's brief to ensure that project-specific goals are met, tailoring the 'type' of translation to the clients' desired outcome(s). If a marketing text was translated in a literal fashion, it is logical to assume that there would be a number of mistranslations, inaccuracies, and awkward phrasing. With the correct application of translation style, the source text's messages and tone could be conveyed communicatively and idiomatically in the target language. Think about it, how many times have you seen a badly-translated menu at a restaurant because someone simply opened a dictionary and wrote the equivalent words in your native tongue?

In translating a text, inexperienced, less confident, translators and linguists demonstrate automatic word-for-word approaches (Carl & Kay, 2011; Snowden, 2016). Arguably, this is because they might be unsure of how much flexibility a translation might have. My own empirical research exploring the translation behaviour of Italian bilinguals demonstrates that even a year of formal translation training can heavily impact decisions made during the translation process, resulting in a much higher standard of translation. Realistically, simply because a bilingual speaks two or more languages, it does not make them a translator.

The above is but a small insight into the amount of theoretical understanding a formally-trained, professional translator provides. It is by no means a conclusive piece of work. All opinions are my own, and any references made are accurately documented below. If you have any concerns regarding a missing citation, please contact me


Bassnett, S. (2012). ‘The translator as cross-culture mediator’. In Malmkjær, K. & Windle, Kevin (ed.), The Oxford handbook of translation studies online. Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199239306.013.0008.

Carl, M. and Kay, M. (2011). ‘Gazing and typing activities during translation: a comparative study of translation units of professional and student translators’. Meta: Translators’ Journal, vol. 56 (4), p.952-975. DOI: 10.7202/1011262ar.

"equivalence, n.", Oxford University Press (2015). Oxford English Dictionary Online. Accessed on 16 September, 2016 at

Hatim, B. & Mason, Ian (1990). Discourse and the translator. London and New York: Longman Group UK Ltd.

Jakobson, R. (1959/1966). ‘On linguistic aspects of translation’. In Brower, R. A. (ed.), On translation. New York: Oxford University Press, pp.232-9.

Newmark, P. (1988). A textbook on translation. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice-Hall International.

Reiß, K. and Vermeer, Hans J. (1984). Grundlegung einer allgemeinen Translationstheorie. Berlin: De Gruyter. Translated by Nord, C. (2013) as Towards a general theory of translation action: skopos theory explained. Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing.

Snell-Hornby, M. (1988). Translation studies: an integrated approach. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Snowden, J. (2016). Defining differences in the translation behaviour of bilingual students: preliminary research using eye tracking and keystroke logging. Durham University.

Vinay, J. P. & Darbelnet, Jean (1958). Stylistique compare du français et de l’anglais. Paris: Didier. Translated by Sager, J. C. and Hamel, Marie-Josée (1995) as Comparative stylistics of French and English: a methodology for translation. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

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