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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  On Translation and Translatability

On Translation and Translatability

By Fedja Imamovic | Published  11/20/2011 | Art of Translation and Interpreting | Recommendation:
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Fedja Imamovic
Da Croato a Inglese translator

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Fedja Imamovic
University of Sarajevo
Faculty of Philosophy
Department of English Language and Literature

Before approaching to the explanation of the concept of translation, it is highly important to state and underline that one of the most salient distinctions between humans and other species lies in the fact that humans have the capacity to communicate and transfer meaningful messages by means of the use of language - highly ordered, organized and structured system of meaningful symbols and signs, which is highly complex in its form and structure. Being a set of elements and rules which relate symbols to their meanings, language can also be considered to be an instrument for humans for the formation of an infinite number of possible utterances from a finite number of elements. However, these core elements, rules and principles may vary from one region to another to such a great extent that we come to the identification of thousands of different language systems across the globe, although all of these systems serve the purpose of establishing the communication between the members of the group who can understand those rules and elements and use them for communication. In 2009, The Ethnologue – Languages of the World encyclopaedia listed the total number of 6,909 different living languages spoken throughout the world. However, if someone reaches out across the border of his own language system and steps out into the communication process of any kind with an individual who does not know this language, the process of communication or the transmission of meaningful messages will be impeded. Therefore, we come to the definition of translation.
Translation is a process of converting messages, thoughts, feelings, orders or any other verbal utterances expressed in one language into messages of the same meaning and value in another language. Different languages use different names to label this process, but all of these names indicate that this process consists of ‘conversion’ and ‘transmission’ of messages to people who do not use the source language system and cannot understand the message coded without the processes of ‘conversion’ and ‘transmission’ into the system that they use for communication. It is highly important to be aware of the fact that what is translated are not simply the elements of one system, being replaced with the corresponding elements of another language system – what is, or should be, translated is the expressed message. For the message to be translated into another language, or the target language, it must be expressed in the source language, and it must remain the same in both languages; the receivers of the translated message must receive the same content as the receivers of the original message. Now, what I have explained up to this point is that translation is a process. However, another meaning implied in the term translation refers to the product itself – the translated material or the concrete translation product which is produced by the translator. In his book ‘Becoming a Translator’, Douglas Robinson states the following: ‘Translation is different things for different groups of people. For those who are not translators, it is primarily a text; for people who are, it is primarily an activity.’ In order to fully understand this concept, we should consider the following distinction. The distinction between these two is also drawn out by the following definition found in Dictionary of Translation Studies: Translation - An incredibly broad notion which can be understood in many different ways. For example, one may talk of translation as a process or a product, and identify such sub-types as literary translation, technical translation, subtitling and machine translation; moreover, while more typically it just refers to the transfer of written texts, the term sometimes also includes interpreting. It is very important to understand that in the history of translation, oral translation appeared before written translation, primarily because of the fact that many languages were spoken and not written. These two types of translation carry the significance for the development of human culture and civilization in general. Due to the never-ending development of modern technologies, it is highly important to mention the machine-aided translation or simply machine translation, although the results of such translations are not considered to be reliable or completely accurate because of the complexity of language and especially the study of word meaning – semantics. However, although machine translation cannot be developed to such a great extent due to many factors, the use of computer-aided tools or CAT which help translators in translation activities should not be neglected. In short words, the basic, but not the only concept for making a division of translation can be based with respect to the type of the translator and can primarily be human or machine translation, then, it can be written or oral (also referred to as interpreting, which can be further divided into consecutive and simultaneous), and at last, but not least, according to the type of the translation material, it is possible to consider translation to be literary or non-literary. A more general division was proposed by the Russo–American linguist Roman Jakobson who makes a very important distinction between three types of written translation in his seminal paper, ‘On Linguistic Aspects of Translation, given in (1):

1. Intralingual translation – translation which occurs within the same language and can involve rewording or paraphrase;
2. Interlingual translation – translation from one language to another, and
3. Intersemiotic translation – translation of the verbal sign by a non-verbal sign, for example music or image.”

The intralingual translation implies the replacement of some words by more or less synonymous equivalents. Yet synonymy, as a rule, does not offer full equivalence, because there are no true synonyms due to the principle of language economy. However, on the level of interlingual translation or translating from one language to another, there are cases when there the absolute equivalence between units of meaning. “The English word “cheese” cannot be completely identified with its standard Russian heteronym “сыр,” because cottage cheese is a cheese but not a сыр. Russians say: принеси сыру и творогу “bring cheese and [sic] cottage cheese.” In standard Russian, the food made of pressed curds is called сыр only if ferment is used.” Intersemiotic translation, according to Jakobson is translating from one semiotic system into another. This can be translation of the verbal sign by a non-verbal sign, for example music or image, and vice versa. For a translation to be intersemiotic, either the source text, or the target text, but not both, may be in a human natural language. It is possible to show this by the dialogue provided in (2):


Speaker A: What does your watch say?
Speaker B: It says ten past seven.

We are aware of the fact that the watch does not really ‘say’ anything. The words ‘ten past seven are only a verbal rendering of the message that is conveyed by the position of the hands of the watch. Verbalizing this non-linguistic message is simply a way of translating and not from one language to another, but from a non-linguistic communication system to a linguistic one. These are both ‘semiotic systems’ (that is, systems for communication), and Jakobson calls this process intersemiotic translation.
In conclusion, translation may be considered to be an abstract concept which encompasses both the process of translating and the product of that process, and has surely been one of the most important and influential component in the process of cultural, historical, economical, cultural and scientific development in the history of the human race.


The primary purpose of communication between people lies in the fact that there is an inner force and need which serves as a motivation for humans to share their knowledge of something about the world that surrounds them. Therefore, people who come from the same language community share a wide spectrum of knowledge within the same field of their background experience. The sender of the message shapes the message he is creating around this field, and if done otherwise, the recipient’s understanding of this message is likely to be a failure, irrespective of the fact that the message is coded by the same system of elements and rules or simply – language the recipient is familiar with. Now, if we take this fact into account when dealing with the concept of translation, which is, as I have already briefly explained, a process of conversion of a message coded in one language into the message with the same meaning and value in another, especially if we talk about converting a culture-specific messages, what might arise is the question of translatability, or a simple doubt – is everything truly translatable? First of all, it is important to underline that translation is not only the replacement of all the elements found in the message coded in one language with the corresponding elements of another.

Some approaches to the process of translation, especially those which focus the process of the communication as the ultimate goal, put the emphasis on the fact that what is translated is actually the extra linguistic content from the real world in which we live, and, therefore, the translation process is possible because of the fact that this world is the same for all people who live on Earth, and people express their thoughts about the world in a variety of different languages. However, the situation gets complicated when we take into consideration the fact that the world, or the field of the background experience, to a certain extent, is not the same for all people who live on this planet because, for example, some people live in the mountains on the continent while the others live on lowland terrains and islands, some people live in tropical regions, while the others live in Siberia. Not only does the geographical terrain differ from one part of the world to another, but also the life conditions which also influenced the development and flourishing of different cultures and civilizations which sometimes have a very loose or no connection with one another. Finally, one of the most concrete products of the unique culture and social conditions is the language itself, which also carries the cultural significance which is implied and has to be translated when we deal with translation. Therefore, we can draw a conclusion that translating from one language into another is the process of translation of the culture itself. Some authors believe that what we translate is the civilization as well as the cultural characteristics and that translation is possible only because of the existence of the core, universal foundations of the human culture, universal aspects of living, as well as the universals of the language and the communication process which is the characteristics for all human beings. As long as the elements of the message that is to be translated and transferred from one culture to another correspond to the extra linguistic content and refer to the universals which exist in the extra linguistic or the real world, the message will be translated without difficulties or any kind of ambiguity. But if there are elements which do not correspond or do not exist in one of the cultures and need to be translated from one culture into another, the problem is likely to arise. These elements might be culture-specific and unknown for the target culture and, therefore, the translator should put a lot of effort into trying to represent and bring closer these elements to those who are not acquainted with them by means of using the language which is not a product of that culture and does not contain the necessary elements for expressing these characteristics. In her work ‘Translation Studies – An Integrated Approach, Mary Snell Hornby states that the role of the translator in the translation process is to bridge the differences between cultures and languages, which are symbols of that specific cultural identity. 'Translators should never overestimate the target-audience’s familiarity with the source-language culture, and “must be at home in two cultures, they must be bilingual and bicultural” . In some cases elements which are not translatable or the so-called “untranslatables” can be indirectly translated by the process of transferring the source element into the target language by providing its explanation it if no parallel or corresponding element exists in the target language.

There are numerous fields of human life in which the elements which are culture-specific may not correspond or exist in another. These elements can be found in language used on a daily basis, in terms of food, clothing, sports, history, religion, political issues etc. A translator is the one who tries to make the best decision when he encounters such issues depending on the type of this element and the concrete communicational function of that element in the message value. One of the most common, but also the most natural actions is to provide an explanation or a definition for the problematic element. For example, the Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian term indeks, a booklet with the list of student’s grades, subjects in each semester and professors’ signatures which are obtained due to student’s attendance and other additional relevant information does not exist in this form in some other cultures. Therefore, this term could be explained by the translator by providing a simple definition. The aforementioned explanation of the term indeks is quite comprehensible, but seems to be very long and heavy, given the fact that the corresponding element in the source language is nothing but a single word. The explanation of this kind can surely be used, but not moved in the sentence structure, especially not if it needs to be repeated several times in the discourse. Therefore, it is possible to borrow the original term, to provide its definition and explanation, and to simply continue using the term in italics the way it is used in the source language, given the fact that the recipient is already familiar with the meaning of this element. An explanation should be provided only the very first time the term is introduced, and the best way to do this in a stylistic way is to place the definition in brackets or a footnote at the end of the page. A reader can always refer to this explanation if he comes to forget its meaning.

Another approach to the solution of the aforementioned problem of translating culture-specific elements is creating a loan translation or calque. This is a word or phrase borrowed from another language by literal, word-for-word or root-for-root translation. For example, the common English phrase "flea market" is a phrase calque that literally translates the French "marché aux puces" ("market where one acquires fleas"). One example for this type of solving a translation issue is the translation of the English word skyscraper, which is translated into Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian language as neboder. Just like the original, the translated element is composed two combined words which correspond to those in the source language compound. I will also mention the semantic calque which can also be interesting. The semantic calque implies the borrowing of the meaning. For example, the primary and the only meaning of Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian word zvijezda/zvezda was that of an astronomical object as a physical entity. Under the influence of the English language, as the English term star, which is used to refer to both astronomical objects and famous individuals from show business, the Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian term zvijezda/zvezda started to connotate the same meaning in BCS. Sometimes translator can substitute a culture-specific element which does not exist in the target language/culture by similar elements which do exist and share some similarities to the source element. This process does not require any sort of effort by the recipient, due to his understanding and familiarity with his own cultural heritage. On the other hand, this is a very risky procedure because we come to place a sign of equality between two elements that might significantly differ in several respects.

Translators sometimes also invent new terms in the target language, but this process is also highly influenced by the society and the natural human instict for language which by its nature oposes any sort of artificial language forms.


What I have already mentioned in the previous two sections is that translation is a process of converting messages expressed in one language, also called the source language, abbreviated as SL, with the message which has the same meaning and value in another or the target language. If we were to dive into further analysis in order to determine what elements are actually translated, or if we were to ask laymen, who are not translators about their belief which units of the message are translated according to their point of view, we would definitely be astonished by the variety of answers we would get. Some people believe that what is actually translated are words only, while the others believe that what is translated is the meaning or the thought. In this section, I will try to explain the notion of the translation unit and its importance for the translation as the process, as well as the product.

First of all, it is important to explain the concept of sign and signified. A Swiss linguist, who is also considered to be the father of the 20th century linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure proposed a 'theory of the sign', and defined a sign as the unity of the matched pair of signifier and signified. The signifier is the word, the sound-image. A word is simply a jumble of letters. Therefore, we can state that, for example, the signifier chair represents the real-world object signified - a piece of furniture for one person to sit on, which has a back, a seat, and four legs; However, the selection of chair for this designation is arbitrary and only occurs in the English-language system. For example, in Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian, the signifier stolica is used for this piece of furniture. The signified is the concept, the meaning, the thing indicated by the signifier. It need not be only a 'real object' but is some referent to which the signifier refers. Now, I should explain the term ‘the unit of translation’ which refers to the linguistic level at which the text that is translated is codified in another language. The unit of translation may be the individual word, group of words or a phrase, clause, sentence or even the entire discourse.

Now, if we say that words are translated and replaced by the corresponding words in the target language, given the fact that the most important tool for all translators are their dictionaries which contain words in one language and their equivalents in another, we will apparently, but only apparently, prove this claim. On the other hand, those who have some linguistic knowledge and observe the process of translating will claim that words are not the smallest contrastive units which have the meaning, and that translators should be then translating the smallest elements which carry the meaning, and those units are morphemes. The researchers in the field of translation studies, Jean-Paul Vinay and Jean Darbelnet also reject the claim that word could be a unit of translation because of the fact that translators focus on the semantic field rather than on the formal properties of the individual signifier. According to these scholars, the word is considered to be 'the smallest segment of the utterance whose signs are linked in such a way that they should not be translated individually’

Similarly, translators who are more experienced and turned to translation studies in general believe that the smallest unit which carries the meaning cannot be neither a morpheme or a word because these elements get their true value and meaning in combination with other morphemes and words, and, therefore, the unit of translation is a set of words or a phrase, which also plays an important role in the sentence structure. Now, when we consider the fact that sentences are composed out of phrases and bear a full meaning, we could also state that sentences are translation units and that the sentences in one language, which are also complete thoughts, are replaced with sentences in another language. However, this is a never-ending circle because we could then state that the real meaning of the sentences only becomes evident when they appear in some sort of context, because sentences relate to the entire discourse and manifest their true functions. Further on, based on this sequence, we could say that the real unit of translation is nothing but the discourse itself, and that translation is the process of replacement of the discourse in one language with the discourse in another, but, evidently, the discourse is too long as the working unit of translation. Therefore, all these linguistic units are the material which builds the message, but the belief that any of these are replaced with their equivalents in the target languages imposes that the translating process is nothing else by simple substitution, therefore being a static process without any dynamics. On the other hand, if we discard this belief and consider the units of translation to be the units of communication, or the message itself including its parts, we can clearly see that translation is possible.

Now when some basic characteristics of the units of translation have been illustrated, as well as the core problems with respect to determining which of these should be really considered to be a true unit of translation, we should turn to the observation of the results obtained if the translator goes from one extremity to another, or from taking the word or the entire discourse as a unit of translation. The age-old question of free and literal translation lies exactly in this selection. Should the translation sound as a translation or the source text? If we understand the fact that translation plays an essential role in the process of communication, then we should agree that translation should be accepted as if it were the source. In this case, the form of the source text doesn’t necessarily matter; the only thing that matters is that the translation carries the same meaning, truth and value as the original and it has to be shaped around the possibilities of expression of the language we are translating into. Therefore, the translation should be transparent, natural-sounding, as if it were written in the target language. If we translate from Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian into English, then our translation should feel as English as possible, with respect to the sentence structure and definitely not like Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian with English words. The sentence structure in the target language should definitely not be the same as in the source language because this structure is not the same in all languages, and if the source language structure is copied and retained in translation, in most cases the translation will not be natural-sounding in the target language. . The researches Jean-Paul Vinay and Jean Darbelnet defined the translation unit as ‘the smallest segment of the utterance whose signs are linked in such a way that they should not be translated individually’. However, I will present here only several types of the units of translation which can be recognized according to the role that they have in the message, and which I will not further analyze in this paper.


1. Functional units, or units whose elements have the same syntactic function:
2. Semantic units, or units of meaning,
3. Dialectic units, or expressing a reasoning,
4. Prosodic units, or units whose elements have the same intonation.

In conclusion, translators use units of translation as linguistic units during the process of translation, and these units are crucial and vital elements in the translation activity. However, what is considered to be the rightful translation unit varies from one situation to another, as I have already explained and exemplified in the preceding paragraphs. In his book ‘A textbook of Translation’, Peter Newmark claims that ‘all lengths of language can, at different moments and also simultaneously, be used as units of translation in the course of the translation activity.


In this Chapter, I will focus on explaining the concept of formal and dynamic equivalence in the process of translation and I will also pay some attention to translation shifts - the small linguistic changes that occur between ST and TT.
When two texts, expressed in two different languages are compared, the question that is almost always raised is the one concerning the so-called equivalence. Equivalence can be said to be the most important issue in translation although its definition, relevance, and applicability within the field of translation theory have caused controversy, and many different theories of the concept of equivalence have been elaborated in the past fifty years. Some of the greatest researchers in the field of translation studies paid a lot of attention to the research of this phenomenon, including the previously mentioned Vinay and Darbelnet, Roman Jakobson, John Catford and especially, Eugene A. Nida who is the developer of the theory of formal and dynamic equivalence that I will present in this part of this paper.

However, many scholars and researchers have devoted their work to the studies of equivalence in relation to the translation process by using different approach. Eugene Nida argued that there are two different types of equivalence, namely formal equivalence, which was in her later work referred to as formal correspondence and dynamic equivalence. In her own words, it is stated that formal correspondence ‘focuses attention on the message itself, in both form and content, unlike dynamic equivalence which is based upon the principle of equivalent effect’. On the other hand, the small linguistic changes that occur between ST and TT are known as translation shifts. John Catford was the first scholar who used this term in his work A Linguistic Theory of Translation. He provided a definition for these translation shifts stating that they represent ‘departures from formal correspondence in the process of going from the SL to the TL’.

The distinction drawn between formal correspondence and textual equivalence will be crucial and relates to Ferdinand De Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole. John Catford defined a formal correspondent as ‘any target language category (unit, class, structure, element of structure, etc.) which can be said to occupy, as nearly as possible, the “same” place in the “economy” of the target language as the given source language category occupies in the source language’. In order to understand this in more concrete terms, we could say that a formal correspondent is a target language piece of language which plays the same role in the target language system as a source language piece of language plays in the source language system. A translation shift is said to occur if, in a given target text, a translation equivalent other than the formal correspondent occurs for a specific source language element.

It is important to make a distinction between formal and dynamic equivalence. Formal equivalence consists of a target language item which represents the closest equivalent of a source language word or phrase. Eugene Nida, who worked as a translator of the Bible, and her colleague C.R. Taber state that there are not always formal equivalents between language pairs. Therefore, they proposed that these formal equivalents should be used wherever possible if the translation aims to achieve formal rather than dynamic equivalence. The use of formal equivalents might at times have serious implications in the target text since the translation will not be easily understood by the target audience. Therefore, we should quote Eugene Nida and C.R. Taber, who state the following:

'Typically, formal correspondence distorts the grammatical and stylistic patterns of the receptor language, and hence distorts the message, so as to cause the receptor to misunderstand or to labour unduly hard’.

In order to illustrate this, we could take a look at the English sentences given in (4a) and (4b), and the Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian translations (formal correspondence) which is provided under (4c) and (4d), respectively.

a) She was a serious student of silence.
b) It was only at college that I began thinking for myself.
c) Ona je bila ozbiljan student tišine.
d) Tek sam na koledžu ja počeo razmišljati za sebe.

Now, if we analyze translations given in (c) and (d), we can draw a conclusion that there is some sort of “gap” in the meaning and that the message cannot be transferred in its entirety in this case. First of all, “silence” in the example under (a) is not a kind of science, art or technique that should be studied, but rather an abstract term. This SL sentence does not seem odd or ambiguous to a native speaker of English, because to be “to be a student ” may convey a special meaning in English, and this meaning cannot be expressed by the same phrase in Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian language. The same situation arises when we analyze the example under (b), and the corresponding translation provided under (d), although the meaning is not so covert in the TT, and can be understood. However, at this point, we can approach the explanation of Dynamic equivalence, and we shall see how this sentence would be translated into BCS, if we use this principle and translate the essential meaning rather than form.

Dynamic equivalence is defined as a translation principle according to which a translator seeks to translate the meaning of the original in such a way that the target language wording will trigger the same impact on the target language audience as the original wording did upon the source language audience. Eugene Nida and C.R. Taber state that 'Frequently, the form of the original text is changed; but as long as the change follows the rules of back transformation in the source language, of contextual consistency in the transfer, and of transformation in the receptor language, the message is preserved and the translation is faithful’. In other words, Dynamic equivalence (also known as functional equivalence) attempts to convey the thought expressed in a source text if necessary, at the expense of literalness, original word order, the source text's grammatical voice, etc.

a) She was a serious student of silence.
b) It was only at college that I began thinking for myself.
c) Dugo je razmišljala u tišini.
d) Tek sam kao student počeo misliti svojom glavom.

The translated sentences under (5c) and (5d) transfer the original essential meaning expressed in the English sentences (5a) and (5b), respectively. In this case, what is translated is the “message”, and the linguistic content in ST is not simply replaced by the corresponding elements in TT.


1. Bell, R.T.: Translation and Translating: Theory and Practice’, Longman, London and New York, 1991
2. Catford, J.: A Linguistic Theory of Translation, London, 1965
3. Hatim, B., Munday, J: Translation: An advanced resource book, Routledge, London and New York, 2004.
4. Jakobson, R.: On Linguistic Aspects of Translation, R. Brower,1959
5. Newmark, P.: A textbook of Translation, New York, London, Praentice Hall, 1988
6. Shuttleworth, M. , Cowie, M.: Dictionary of Translation Studies’,St. Jerome Pub., Manchester, 1997
7. Snell-Hornby, M.: Translation Studies – An Integrated Approach, Amsterdam, John Benjamins, 1995
8. Venuti, L. : The Translation Studies, Reader, London & New York: Routledge,2000

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