Translation Techniques

by Gabriela Bosco

As somebody who has been translating professionally for over 15 years now, I must confess the topic of Translation Techniques poses somewhat of a challenge; trying to pin down strategies that you use almost intuitively every day of your life becomes a rather difficult task.

That is why I decided to outline a widely-accepted list of translation techniques in the hope that the reader may become interested in knowing a little bit more about translation and its nuances.

Direct Translation Techniques

Direct Translation Techniques are used when structural and conceptual elements of the source language can be transposed into the target language. Direct translation techniques include:

  • Borrowing
  • Calque
  • Literal Translation


Borrowing is the taking of words directly from one language into another without translation. Many English words are "borrowed" into other languages; for example software in the field of technology and funk in culture. English also borrows numerous words from other languages; abbatoire, café, passé and résumé from French; hamburger and kindergarten from German; bandana, musk and sugar from Sanskrit.

Borrowed words are often printed in italics when they are considered to be "foreign".


A calque or loan translation (itself a calque of German Lehnübersetzung) is a phrase borrowed from another language and translated literally word-for-word. You often see them in specialized or internationalized fields such as quality assurance (aseguramiento de calidad, assurance qualité taken from English). Examples that have been absorbed into English include standpoint and beer garden from German Standpunkt and Biergarten; breakfast from French déjeuner (which now means lunch in Europe, but maintains the same meaning of breakfast in Québec). Some calques can become widely accepted in the target language (such as standpoint, beer garden and breakfast and Spanish peso mosca and Casa Blanca from English flyweight and White House). The meaning other calques can be rather obscure for most people, especially when they relate to specific vocations or subjects such as science and law. Solución de compromiso is a Spanish legal term taken from the English compromise solution and although Spanish attorneys understand it, the meaning is not readily understood by the layman. An unsuccessful calque can be extremely unnatural, and can cause unwanted humor, often interpreted as indicating the lack of expertise of the translator in the target language.

Literal Translation

A word-for-word translation can be used in some languages and not others dependent on the sentence structure: El equipo está trabajando para terminar el informe would translate into English as The team is working to finish the report. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not. For example, the Spanish sentence above could not be translated into French or German using this technique because the French and German sentence structures are different. And because one sentence can be translated literally across languages does not mean that all sentences can be translated literally. El equipo experimentado está trabajando para terminar el informe translates into English as The experienced team is working to finish the report ("experienced" and "team" are reversed).

Oblique Translation Techniques

Oblique Translation Techniques are used when the structural or conceptual elements of the source language cannot be directly translated without altering meaning or upsetting the grammatical and stylistics elements of the target language.

Oblique translation techniques include:

  • Transposition
  • Modulation
  • Reformulation or Equivalence
  • Adaptation
  • Compensation


This is the process where parts of speech change their sequence when they are translated (blue ball becomes boule bleue in French). It is in a sense a shift of word class. Grammatical structures are often different in different languages. He likes swimming translates as Er schwimmt gern in German. Transposition is often used between English and Spanish because of the preferred position of the verb in the sentence: English often has the verb near the beginning of a sentence; Spanish can have it closer to the end. This requires that the translator knows that it is possible to replace a word category in the target language without altering the meaning of the source text, for example: English Hand knitted (noun + participle) becomes Spanish Tejido a mano (participle + adverbial phrase).


Modulation consists of using a phrase that is different in the source and target languages to convey the same idea: Te lo dejo means literally I leave it to you but translates better as You can have it. It changes the semantics and shifts the point of view of the source language. Through modulation, the translator generates a change in the point of view of the message without altering meaning and without generating a sense of awkwardness in the reader of the target text. It is often used within the same language. The expressions es fácil de entender (it is easy to understand) and no es complicado de entender (it is not complicated to understand) are examples of modulation. Although both convey the same meaning, it is easy to understand simply conveys "easiness" whereas it is not complicated to understand implies a previous assumption of difficulty that we are denying by asserting it is not complicated to understand. This type of change of point of view in a message is what makes a reader say: "Yes, this is exactly how we say it in our language".

Reformulation or Equivalence

Here you have to express something in a completely different way, for example when translating idioms or advertising slogans. The process is creative, but not always easy. Would you have translated the movie The Sound of Music into Spanish as La novicia rebelde (The Rebellious Novice in Latin America) or Sonrisas y lágrimas (Smiles and Tears in Spain)?


Adaptation occurs when something specific to one language culture is expressed in a totally different way that is familiar or appropriate to another language culture. It is a shift in cultural environment. Should pincho (a Spanish restaurant menu dish) be translated as kebab in English? It involves changing the cultural reference when a situation in the source culture does not exist in the target culture (for example France has Belgian jokes and England has Irish jokes).


In general terms compensation can be used when something cannot be translated, and the meaning that is lost is expressed somewhere else in the translated text. Peter Fawcett defines it as: "...making good in one part of the text something that could not be translated in another". One example given by Fawcett is the problem of translating nuances of formality from languages that use forms such as Spanish informal tú and formal usted, French tu and vous, and German du and sie into English which only has 'you', and expresses degrees of formality in different ways.

As Louise M. Haywood from the University of Cambridge puts it, "we have to remember that translation is not just a movement between two languages but also between two cultures. Cultural transposition is present in all translation as degrees of free textual adaptation departing from maximally literal translation, and involves replacing items whose roots are in the source language culture with elements that are indigenous to the target language. The translator exercises a degree of choice in his or her use of indigenous features, and, as a consequence, successful translation may depend on the translator's command of cultural assumptions in each language in which he or she works".

If you are interested in reading further on the subject, please refer to Peter Fawcett, Translation and Language, St. Jerome, Manchester, 1997 (especially Chapter 4 on Translation Techniques).