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Lost in translation: how to work with a lack of context

Context can often be scarce in modern translation tasks, but it’s not the end of the world

We’ve all been there. You’re working along, just getting into your groove, perhaps as part of a small task, an exam, or you’ll just come across a segment in a larger text that sticks out like a sore thumb. You’ve done great work so far today, but upon reading that section you grind to a shuddering halt. How on earth, you think to yourself, could anyone ever translate that?

Good translation, we’re always taught, can only be built on the back of adequate context. But let’s stop for a second: what exactly is context, why do we need it, and how do we make do without it?

Well, as a translator, you’ll know that there’s a lot more to your job than just converting words one by one. In fact, that’s almost always a sure-fire way to create a poor translation every single time. Part of the reason machines can’t quite catch up with humans when it comes to translation is that there are layers upon layers of social etiquette, nuance and inherent understanding that come with every sentence that rely on so many variables that only a human can properly process, understand, and make the correct choice. If I’m talking to someone via WhatsApp, for example, because I’m selling a keyboard, and they send this message, it’s full of context for me to work with.

This tells me a lot of things, and it means I’m able to craft my response. For example, I know that even though I’ve never met Alex, there’s a pre-existing premise for the conversation. I know that the register, whilst informal, remains polite — and if Alex has started the conversation with “ever so sorry”, there’s a good chance that he’s British, too. I can then use this information to respond to Alex in an appropriate manner, knowing that I’m unlikely to offend anyone. This is a simple example, but it’s at the core of what context is — and there are a lot of different types. Even in that two-sentence example I’ve got some situational context, register, and general cultural context — and that’s just the stuff I’m aware of. I’m sure the language centre of my brain is processing loads of other things that I’m not even that aware of.

As a translator, you don’t get this luxury. You’re a distant third party in the conversation, a facilitator, but yet your choices make a huge difference. In fact, get it wrong in a high-stakes environment and there can be real trouble. This ends up begging the question: how on earth are you meant to produce high-quality translations with little to no context? Well, here are three easy steps that can make all the difference:

Don’t obsess over it — you’ve got the text you’ve got. If you don’t feel like you can work with the text, then don’t — but don’t spend ages agonising over the decision. Yes, a lack of context can be annoying, and of course where possible it’s a great idea to get more of it, but sometimes (and this isn’t just limited to contextual issues) I see editors spending way, way too much time writing long reports about tasks without context. If you’ve made good decisions based on the material you have, then anyone assessing your quality should understand that. Think of your consideration towards each task as a bit like adding salt to a dish — a little is vital if you want to produce something that’s not bland and tasteless, but too much and you’ll spoil it irretrievably.

Walk the tightrope of neutrality. If you’re missing information that you’d need to make the translation really work in your language, that’s annoying. However, you can mitigate that by sticking to generic choices for your language and really scanning the client instructions or brief for as much information as you’ve got — there’s often more than you think, so don’t write off a task without looking at everything you’ve got. Done properly, translating in a neutral way is a real skill — and something you’ll master with time provided you don’t dismiss contextually challenged tasks out of hand.

Remember that not every task you submit is going to shine. For anyone working in the written word in any form, being a perfectionist often comes with the territory. I’m capable of spending hours trying to rewrite one paragraph and end up going with the first draft — but that’s a terrible use of my time. One of the inherent truths of writing, translating, or creating is that you’re never going to be equally proud of all of your output. Sometimes you just need to get the job done, and it’s perfectly fine to complete something to the expected standard without worrying about how to go above and beyond.


What are your tips for tricky tasks with a lack of context? Let us know in the comments below.

Lost in translation: how to work with a lack of context was originally published in Unbabel Community on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.