Dynamic and Formal equivalence: putting translation theory into practice.

When you’re starting a translation, always plan your approach first. Are you going to faithfully stick to what the original writer said, or are you going to go off-piste? This isn’t a trick question. There’s no right or wrong answer. Take a look at the text, its purpose, and the target audience, and then you can build a translation approach that works for you and your client.

Dynamic and Formal Equivalence

It was Eugene Nida that developed the terms ‘Dynamic Equivalence’ and ‘Formal Equivalence’.

He was an American linguist who developed many of the modern translation theories. If you’re studying translation, I bet you’ve heard of him. He specialised a lot in theories of Bible translation.

Simply put, they’re two different translation approaches.

Dynamic Equivalence = sense for sense

  • Looking at sentences or phrases as a whole.
  • Focussing on meaning and naturalness of expression.
  • The text should have the same effect on the target reader as the source reader.
  • The translation is adjusted to the reader’s cultural expectations and linguistic needs.

Formal Equivalence = word-for-word

  • A more literal approach.
  • Aims at reproducing everything from the source text into the target text.
  • Main concern is that the message in the target language matches the different elements in the source language as closely as possible.
  • Pay close attention to the source text structure

Which strategy do you think is better?

Some people think that translating by meaning (Dynamic Equivalence) is better, as it’s more focussed on readability and sounds a bit more natural. However, the benefits of being more literal and following a Formal Equivalence translation strategy are that there’s no risk that the target text will become contaminated by the translator’s influence. That’s the reason why the Bible is a bit hard to read in some versions. Some translators believed that a more literal approach would help preserve the meaning of the source text.

Enough theory Gill! How does this help us in a real-life scenario?

There isn’t really a right or wrong answer to this, but knowing a bit of theory can help you choose your translation approach. I’ve had some feedback in the past that I can afford to be a bit more creative (aka Dynamic) in my translation choices, which was good to know for that client, and something I’m working on. I’ve worked with more ‘Formal’ clients before as a Project Manager that have insisted we keep the translations as close to the meaning of the text to preserve their message, and that’s fine too if we know that’s what they want.

Choosing your approach

If you translate completely freely, then you might as well call that re-writing and skip the translation part. If you’re too literal your client would have been better off using a Machine Translation tool. Our job is to look at the text and make a judgement call based on our knowledge of translation, to decide exactly how ‘faithful’ to the original you need to be.

Have a look at the source text first, and the translation brief. Do they give you any clues?

If your brief includes the application of gender-inclusive language, and you’re translating into a gendered-language, then you’ll find it hard to take a ‘word-for-word’ approach to the translation. Things are going to have to be shuffled around a bit to avoid gender-marking nouns.

If the text contains a lot of idioms and expressions, it probably wouldn’t make sense to translate these literally. It reads better to find the equivalent expression in your language.

What is the purpose of the document? Is it instructional? A technical manual could result in a catastrophe if you decide to go off-piste and change some of the instructions because it would read better. But also, you can’t be too literal for something like this, otherwise you won’t be understood.

Does your translation have the same purpose as the original text? If you’re translating marketing material, your main goal is for the translation to have the same effect on the target audience, as it did in the original version. If you’re translating something for information purposes, then you probably need to be more direct.

Case study

I came across a scenario where I had to make a choice between keeping the source document authentic/not losing the message of the translation. It was a newsletter with a purpose to be informative, but also entertain people. I translated from French.

Source text: le pyjama trempé

Literal meaning: soaked pyjamas

I decided to change this sentence to ‘I’m sweating right through my PJs’. Why? Despite knowing from the context what the author meant, I didn’t want to be too literal on this occasion and run the risk of the audience thinking that the pyjamas were wet for any other reason. Maybe I should have added ‘Do you want to avoid completely embarrassing your client?’ to my list above.

I was happy with the approach I took, because the meaning (that they were suffering from a fever and not incontinence) was plainly translated, and it sounded pretty natural in English. It was a fun translation because I was given the green light to be creative in my translation choices. I appreciate that’s not for everyone, but that’s how I translate best.

Finalising your approach

Be tactical. Your approach to translation might be a complete juggling act between author/client, audience, meaning, and readability.

Translation isn’t just about going from A to B. It’s a sliding scale between several factors: Making sense/getting the writer’s message across; writing in the same tone and manner of the original writer, and having the same effect on the target audience; producing a natural, easy-to-read text.

If you’re buying a translation: don’t be alarmed if you look at your professional translation and noticed that things haven’t been translated word-for-word.

If you’re producing a translation: think about the type of material you’re translating, and the end audience:

  • Would they benefit from a literal approach, or would the target text sound better if you use a bit of creative licence?
  • How natural does it need to be? It depends on the text. Legal translations are black-and-white. Newsletters are always better received if the reader can imagine the writer speaking to them directly in their own language.
  • Does the same tone of voice work in your culture? Being from a culture that says ‘sorry’ to someone when they bump into you, I’ve found myself making adjustments in the past, so that the writer’s tone of voice feels less ‘blunt’ to a UK audience.
  • Are you writing to persuade, or inform? Marketing texts need to be well, more persuasive. Informative texts need the information to be clearly translated in a way that the reader can come to their own conclusions about the topic.

Have you had to make a decision on whether to stay faithful recently? Leave me a comment below, or come and find me on LinkedIn, I’d love to hear from you.

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