What is a technical term, used by professional translators, and are there 'notorious' instructive examples for the following danger when translating a text:

  • I have to translate a text T from language L_1 to language L_2. More precisely, I have to translate a transcript of a discussion. I have now arrived at person P_1 uttering sentence S, which I have to translate as accurately as possible into L_2 Suppose S contains a word W_1, and that W_1 is 'pure L_1'. In particular, W_1 is not a loanword at all, and sounds 'very L_1'. In my case W_1 is, in a sense, deeply embedded and hidden within the language L_1, there is little chance that an L_2-speaker would understand the use of W_1, unless they are very knowledgable in L_1.) So no now I have to translate W_1. The crucial factor is the following:

There is a word W_2 in L_2 which by itself would be a very good translation of W_1, but there is the following problem: W_2 exists in L_1 as a well-known loanword. Therefore, if I were to translate W_1 by W_2, readers may mistakenly think that that P_1 actually did use the loanword when speaking L_1, which P_1 did not do. (As I said, P_1 used the very 'purely L_1'word W_1.) Aiming at accuracy and wanting to avoid such misunderstandings, this rules out translating W_1 by W_2, as apposite a translation it may be. In a sense, the very usualness of W_2 in both languages W_1 and W_2 makes it impossible to use W_2 as a translation.

Example. A good example (not the one I am actually motivated by; in my case, the translating situation is also not 'English->German', as it is in the following example) is the following: suppose you have to carefully translate, from English to German, the following dialogue in a novel of well-known English-speaking novelist (I invented the following; should it be similar to a passage in an existing novel, this is accidental; also, if this is not evident enough: the names are made-up and in alphabetic order):

Suppose that in the novel Alice is has dual German und US citizenship and works as a civil servant in the US during the 1980s. Supose that in the novel she is now having a conversation about 'Bob' with someone (who is irrelevant for the question and remains unnamed).


Alice: I finally knew how bad Bob's character is when I saw Bob's glee at Chris' having mislaid the file and having been disciplined for it.


Let L_1=English, L_2=German, P_1=Alice, S="I finally knew how bad Bob's character is when I saw Bob's glee at Chris' having mislaid the file and having been disciplined.", W_1=glee, W_2=Schadenfreude.

By itself, it W_2 would be a good translation of W_1. More extensively, it would be a good translation to translate:


Alice: Ich wusste endlich was für einen schlechten Charakter Bob hat als ich seine Schadenfreude darüber sah, dass die Akte von Chris verschlampt und er dafür diszipliniert worden war.



  • Schadenfreude is a common loanword in English,

  • worse, the novel leaves no doubt about Alice knowing German, despite working in the US.

The problem with this translation (if one aims at very careful translation) is, therefore, the following:

  • Readers of the German version are likely to think that Alice actually used 'Schadenfreude' in the English conversation she was having.

If one prefers to avoid that, translating W_1 as W_2 is not an option.

Here, as in my actual problem,

  • it's also no problem at all to find an alternative; e.g., I would, in the above example, write

Alice: Ich wusste endlich was für einen schlechten Charakter Bob hat, als ich seine Häme darüber sah, dass die Akte von Chris verschlampt und er dafür diszipliniert worden war.

The word 'Häme' is about as 'pure German' as 'glee' is 'pure English', and therefore much to be preferred over 'Schadenfreude' when translating S.

One could summarize what I am asking as a question for examples and/or technical terms for

  • not only preserving the meaning in a translation, and not only the 'register', but, even more, also paying attention to whether a word is a loanword.

  • my problem is to convince someone else that this is not quite a correct way act as a translator, and it would be good to have more examples and/or technical terms for this subtlety; and not for the sake of convincing, but since the alternative is just not a good translation.


Part of why I am asking this is precisely the lengthiness of the explanation I gave above. My motivation is (I think) very altruistic: I am corresponding with someone about this translation, a translation which is of critical importance, and I simply think that the use of W_2 (which my correspondent unfortunately unthinkingly did use to translate W_1 in their attempt at translating T) could be misleading or even harmful.

It is perfectly fine to simply explain my concerns to my correspondent in the way I did above, yet it would be a helpful addition if there were a 'pithier'/briefer and attested and documented documentation of this subtlety somewhere. I am not asking this to have a better 'ammunition' in the conversation I am having, rather simply to make my correspondent understand my concern, which currently it seems they do not.

  • 7
    I'm finding this question... honestly pretty confusing and difficult to parse out. Can you perhaps find an example of what you're looking for, or barring that, make an example using fake languages and words?
    – user80
    Commented Oct 21, 2017 at 19:27
  • L-1 is deeply embedded within L-1 and W-2 is a very good translation of W-2? Can you review your text and ensure your letters and numbers are correct? Also you ‘simply think that the use of W-2....’ what? you didn’t finish that sentence. If this is how you have explained the issue to your correspondent, i don’t wonder they are confused.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Oct 22, 2017 at 5:39
  • @Zyera: I agree with what you say. I tried to make it better now. I am painfully aware that this is almost not a question at all (I basically have already explained all that there is to it, and do not hope for there to me much more to say). But there is always something one doesn't know, and, who knows, perhaps literary theory has something to say on this. Thanks for the comment; I have made corrections and additions.
    – guest
    Commented Oct 22, 2017 at 7:39


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.