ТОП 10:

Translation equivalence and equivalents


Translation equivalence is the key idea of translation. According to A.S.Hornby equivalent means equal in value, amount, volume, etc. The principle of equivalence is based on the mathematical law of transitivity. As applied to translation, equivalence means that if a word or word combination of one language (A) corresponds to certain concept (C) and a word or word combination of another language (B) corresponds to the same concept (C) these words or word combinations are considered equivalent (connected by the equivalence relation).

In other words, in translation equivalent means indirectly equal, that is equal by the similarity of meanings. For example, words table and стіл are equivalent through the similarity of the meanings of the Ukrainian word стіл and one! Of the meanings of the English word table. In general sense and in general case words table and стіл are not equal or equivalent – they are equivalent only under specific translation conditions.

This simple idea is very important for the understanding of translation: the words that you find in a dictionary as translations of the given foreign language words are not the universal substitutes of this word in your language. These translations (equivalents) are worth for specific cases which are yet to be determined by the translator.

As we know, the relation between a language sign (word or word combination) and the fragment of the real world it denotes is indirect and intermediated by the mental concept. We also remember that the mental concept of a given language sign is usually rather broad and complex, consisting of a lexical meaning or meanings, a grammatical meaning or meanings, connotations and associations. It is also worth reminding that the mental concept of a word (and word combination) is almost never precisely outlined and may be defined even in the minds of different speakers of the same language, not to mention the speakers of different languages.

All this naturally speaks for the complexity of finding the proper and only translation equivalent of the given word. Translation equivalence never means the sameness of the meaning for the signs of different languages.

Translation equivalents in a dictionary are just the prompts for the translator. One may find a proper equivalent only in speech due to the context, situation and background knowledge.

The idea of translation equivalence is strongly related to that of the unit of translation, i.e. the text length required to obtain proper equivalent.

It is generally known that one word is hardly a common unit of translation, especially in analytical languages with usually polysemantic words. Their meaning strongly depends on the environment. One is more likely to find a universal equivalent for a word combination, in particular for a clichéd one (e.g. hands up, ready made), because a word combination is already a small context and the clichéd expressions are commonly used in similar situations. The general rule of translation reads: the longer is the source text, the bigger is a chance to find proper and correct translation equivalent.

Traditionally and from practical viewpoint the optimal length of text for translation is a sentence. Being a self-sustained syntactic entity a sentence usually contains enough syntactic and semantic information for translation. However, there are cases when a broader stretch of the source text is required. It supplies additional information necessary for translation.

Thus, put with certain degree of simplification, equivalence is a similarity of meaning observed in the units of different languages and used for translation. The units of the target language with meanings similar to the relevant units of the source language are called translation equivalents. Modern translation theory suggests two basic grades of translation equivalents.


a) Full Translation Equivalents

As it was previously mentioned, one can hardly find truly full and universal equivalents for a word. However, practical translation dates back to ancient times and since then translations are commonly regarded and used as full-pledged substitutes of the relevant source text. That is why despite contradicting theoretical evidence full equivalence is commonly accepted as a convenient makeshift.

For practical purpose full equivalence is presumed when there is complete coincidence of pragmatic meanings of the source and target language units.

This rule applies both to individual words and their regular combinations. Speaking generally, translation equivalents of all words and word combinations one finds in a good dictionary are full because the translation practice reflected in dictionaries shows them as complete substitutes universally accepted by the speakers’ community of the target language (i.e. pragmatically equivalent).

Of them the stylistically neutral words with reference meanings (terms, geographical and proper names, words denoting physical objects and processes) are more likely to have full translation equivalents because semantic and pragmatic parts of their meaning are less ambiguous.


b) Partial Translation Equivalents

To understand the partiality and the completeness of translation equivalence let us consider the syntactic, semantic and pragmatic aspects of equivalence, because the partiality of equivalence is, as a matter of fact, the absence of one or more of these aspects.

Let us start from examples. Книга as an equivalent of the English word book is full in all equivalence aspects because it has similar syntactic functions (those of a Noun), its lexical meaning is also generally similar, and the pragmatic aspect of this equivalent (the message intent and target audience reaction) coincides with that of the English word. Thus, книга is conventionally regardedas a full equivalent of the word book.

Strictly saying, however, the Ukrainian word протестувати, for example, is a partial equivalent of the English word protesting (say, in the sentence Protesting is a risk – Протестувати ризиковано) because of different grammatical meanings (a Gerund and a Verb), the semantic and pragmatic aspects being similar.

To take another example of partial equivalence let us consider the English saying Carry coal to Newcastle. If one translates it as Возити вугілля до Ньюкасла it would lack the pragmatic aspect of equivalence (The intent of this message Bring something that is readily available locally would be lost, because the Ukrainian audience could be unaware of the fact that Newcastle is the center of a coal-mining area). If, however one translates it Їхати до Тули з власним самоваром it would lose the semantic similarity, but preserve the pragmatic intent of the message, which, in our opinion, is the first priority of translation. Anyway, both suggested translation equivalents of this saying are considered partial.

Partial equivalence is, as a matter of fact, the absence of one or more of equivalence aspects, i.e. of syntactic, semantic or pragmatic aspect.

It should be born in mind, however, that syntactic equivalence of translation units longer than several words is a rare case, indeed, if one deals with two languages having different systems and structures (English and Ukrainian are a good example).moreover, it is hardly a translator’s target to preserve the structure of the source text and in many instances this means violation of syntactic and stylistic rules of the target language.

Semantic similarity between the source and target texts is desirable, but it is not an ultimate goal of a translator.

What is really important for translation adequacy is the pragmatic equivalence. Let us take several examples of semantic and/or pragmatic equivalents to illustrate the idea:

Зелений – green; (недосвідчений) verdant; зелений горошок – green peace; зелений театр – open-air stage; зелений хлопчисько – greenhorn; зелена вулиця – green, go; давати зелену вулицю – to give open passage, to give the go-ahead; туга зелена – utter boredom; зелене будівництво – laying out of parks; зелений борщ – sorrel soup; потопати в зелені – to be buried in verdure.

Thus, one may suggest that translation equivalence partiality is more a translation tool than a flaw in translator’s ability to render the content of the source message in its full. This evidently does not apply to the pragmatic equivalence which is a universal prerequisite of good translation.

In order to apply theory in translation practice it should be reasonable to consider a detailed classification of translation equivalence types by V.Komissarov.


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