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Context and Meaning in Translation

Language experts are constantly calling on the importance of context in translations. “Without proper context, it is impossible to produce accurate translations” they say.

If you ever had trouble understanding why context is so important when translating, we would like you to think of context in conversational speech. More often than not, we find we cannot interpret the meaning of some conversations unless we get additional information.

Think about the following example:

A- Where is the cheeseburger?

B- She is sitting right by the front door.

Would you be able to understand this conversation from just these two segments? Unless you are very creative, the answer is no!

It actually makes little sense until you know that sentence A was uttered by a waitress standing in the kitchen of a restaurant and addressing another waitress. With that extra piece of information, you can probably figure out that “She” in sentence B refers to a customer standing right by the front door.

In translation, context serves the same purpose: If you see an isolated segment that reads “home”, in most cases you would assume the translation is pretty straight-forward (in Spanish “casa” or “hogar”). But when you see that segment is actually the string of an application’s menu, then everything changes.

When it comes to language, semantics help readers understand the meaning of words in isolation. However, it is often not enough to comprehend the meaning of situations (like the conversation above) that makes use of these words.

In speech and written language, the meaning of words is not just governed by semantics, it is also influenced by a wide range of contextual factors, including social and physical circumstances, identities, attitudes and beliefs of participants, irony, relations holding between participants, and many others.

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