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Context please!

I am just going through my old list email. Since I filter them to different directories it doesn’t bother my inbox I don’t care much if they accumulate. They never have attachments, so even a few thousand emails don’t amount to any significant file size.

One of my pet peeves are translation questions without context. Actually, it applies not only to translation mailing lists but to all types of online communication and all sorts of topics. If you have a computer question, you should always include your computer specs or what exactly the problem is and how it started. The question “What should I do if my computer doesn’t boot anymore?” is impossible to answer.

I am never sure why people do not add the specifics or the sentence before and/or after to their questions. Sometimes, if you are in a hurry, you may forget it and just slap the sentence into an email and send it off. It happens, that’s OK. Unfortunately, you sometimes see an elaborate email that omits the context and in that case you know it was not written in a rush. So, what makes those people omit the oh-so-important context?

A few possible reasons come to mind:

  • The asker feels the context is not relevant
    This is a poor judgment call given the fact that the asker didn’t understand the sentence well enough to translate it in the first place. To a native speaker, the sentence before and after is often the deciding factor for a translation. This is not a “need-to-know” situation, unless the asker is translating highly confidential material for the CIA or FBI. Let the mailing list decide how much additional information they need, but give them as much as possible.
  • The asker feels the context is obvious
    This may be true in some cases, but in most cases it is just obvious to the asker because his mind is “in the text”. The people on the mailing list have no idea what the translation is about. And even if they know the general context, it is usually important to know who said something, the frame of mind of the narrator, the time frame - or for technical items, if it is a description, a caption, a menu item, a catalog entry etc.
  • The asker finds it more appropriate to explain the context
    This is my favorite. In this case, the mailing list has to trust that the asker actually understood the parts before and after, which can be dubitable. He didn’t understand the sentence he is asking about, so how can he be sure he understood the sentence before and after properly? The target language explanation is a translation of his understanding which doubles the error rate. First the context is possibly misunderstood, and second it is possibly mistranslated.

In the end, it is a big waste of time for everyone involved. People who are trying to help send possible solutions that are totally useless within the context - which they couldn’t tell because there was no context. Members of the mailing list get annoyed to the point where they don’t even answer anymore, but just roll their eyes and hit the “Delete” key. The mailing list gets swamped with a back-and-forth of emails with the context slowly unfolding and with the new information, people “re-answer”.

In one of those discussions a couple of months back, a fellow translator and ATA/GLD member Karin Bauchrowitz replied with a great comment (she was quoting someone from a conference):

Beginners translate word by word, then it goes up to sentence by sentence, then paragraph by paragraph, but only the experienced translators go by the entire text, meaning that they take the entire text under consideration.

Considering the topic of this post - do your fellow list members a favor: don’t ask for help posting a word or sentence. For a proper translation, give them at least a paragraph of the text!


2 Responses to “Context please!”

  1. Halina on June 23rd, 2010

    I don’t actually think that it is to do with being a beginner or an experienced translator, for it is a basic knowledge that you should translate sense for sense rather than word for word. If you haven’t grasped it, it is best to steer clear of translating.

  2. Maria Guzenko on April 18th, 2011

    How do you reconcile the need to translate the entire text with the practice of using CAT tools that go unit by unit, though. I think this is especially true for technical fields.

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