The Critical Role of Research in Good Translation


Research is central to translation. This may seem a surprising assertion to those not directly involved in the field, who could easily get the impression that translation is a purely mechanical process that a semi-clever AI could easily handle, or who think that a translator is someone who has just memorized a lot of terminology.

The reality is that nobody knows every single word and expression in any language, even their own. Unfamiliar terms and unconventional or unexpected usage crop up all the time. In everyday life, we tend to deal with this by making educated guesses based on context or by simply betting that we’ll be able to understand the gist of what we’ve just heard or read even if we don’t have the slightest idea what one word or expression means.

The former tactic – guessing from context – is of limited use in translation; the latter – merely skipping the term altogether – is no use at all. To translate a text, translators have or acquire at least a reasonable grasp of a term even when we’ve never seen it before, even when nobody else appears to have used it. That’s why translation is as much about knowing where – and how – to search for terms as it is about having the necessary linguistic infrastructure to use them once they’ve been found.

Dictionaries are of limited utility in this context, since many of them will simply offer (potential) equivalents without explication. To choose a correct translation of an unfamiliar term, we need more than that. We need to be able to understand enough about the subject-matter of the document to be able to distinguish between a correct rendering of the terms used and one that makes no sense. To this end, we examine a wide variety of sources, ranging from dictionaries to textbooks on the relevant subject in the relevant languages, to posts on professional forums, and much more. Sometimes, we even go on site visits so that we can see first hand how the things described in the documents we’re working on actually function.

Good research is the difference between looking up ‘promissory’ and ‘estoppel’ in an English-German dictionary and finding ‘versprechend’ and ‘Präklusion’ (yielding the meaningless “versprechende Präklusion”) and actually looking at the treatises and case law and understanding that what ‘promissory estoppel’ estops is a specific defence (Einwendung) against the validity of a claim (in this case a claim arising from an otherwise unenforceable promise on which the other party detrimentally relied), and could thus be more accurately rendered as Promissory Estoppel (Einwendungspräklusion), because the concept does not exist in quite the same form in German law (where the matter is governed by § 122 BGB [Civil Code]).

A good translator isn’t somebody who always knows the right word (though that certainly helps). A good translator is someone who, at a minimum, has an intimate familiarity with the available terminology resources (glossaries, dictionaries, etc.), at least some working knowledge of standard reference works for the relevant discipline in the source and target language, and who knows how to use Google creatively when all else fails (for example, if you’ve got a name for a tool or machine part in one language and you can’t find any equivalent in your target language, do an image search to get a picture of the thing, and then use that picture to do a search in your target language).

Knowing where to look is everything.

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