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Context Is Everything

Context means a lot in translation

Do you want your translation vendor produce a high-quality translation? The most important thing you can do to help your vendor is to provide as much context as possible. Read this article to learn about why context is so important.

Ambiguous meaning

Try to translate this English word into another language. In fact, do not even translate, just try to understand it:


Is it a place in a program to enter data? Or is it an agricultural field? Or is it a field of knowledge? Without context or explanation, a translator can only guess. The more possible meanings a word has, the less is the chance of hitting the bull’s-eye. Let’s assume that the translator chooses to go with “field of knowledge.” And after the translation is delivered, it turns out that it actually means something else, e.g. “field” as in “field vs. back-office.”

“Print Order”

Is it an order of printing? Or is it printing an order (sequence)? Or is it printing a purchase order? Translation will likely be different in each case.

Difficult terms

Context is also critical for understanding complex terms. Here are a few examples:

“Scout magnet”

“Barcode post”

Even if you know which field these words belong to, translating them correctly is a challenge.

What do you make of it as a translation buyer?

  1. I would not expect a translator to do a good job if a text is riddled with such ambiguities. This is often the case with software localization, for instance. A translator receives just a long list of words in an Excel file, and can only guess which function each word plays in the software. Is “Set” a verb or a noun? Not knowing this means the difference between an accurate translation and a total mistranslation. Remember that garbage in usually means garbage out.
  2. Provide context from the outset, whether by reference materials or explanations. Yes, a translator can and should look things up on the Internet that he/she does not understand. This approach has two drawbacks, though. First, time spent on looking for answers that you could easily provide adds to the total time of the project. A translator may bill you more as a result. Second, you cannot be sure that what he/she finds on the Internet is what you meant. Given the multitude of meanings a word may have, relying on the Internet can be a disaster waiting to happen.
  3. Be sure to provide answers when a translator asks. Receiving questions from a translator may be annoying. You may wonder why a person is asking about things that are crystal clear to you. You may doubt the translator’s qualifications. But the point is that you need to answer those questions, since the translator is asking them for a reason. Ignoring them or giving an unhelpful answer will be counter-productive. You may choose not to use this translation vendor in the future because of the questions, but for this project, please do provide answers. It is in your own best interest.

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  • If your translator never asks questions, you should probably be concerned. Sometimes, even in context, words can have two meanings – in Italian, for example, “smalto” on a ceramic pot can mean “enamel” or “glaze”. You need to get to the bottom of that.

    If your translator does ask questions, it’s because they want to get the translation right for you. Of course, they should not ask reams of trivial queries or submit a stream of them one after another instead of batching them all up together.

    But ambiguity can be an insidious thing; your careful translator might just save you from embarrassment – or worse.

    • Good example, Oliver.
      Unfortunately, what seems so common sense to us translators can be very hard to explain to clients who have no idea how much ambiguities even a regular text might contain.
      Thank you for your comment,

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About the Author

Roman Mironov
Roman Mironov
CEO & Founder

As the founder of Velior, Roman has had the privilege of being able to turn his passion for languages into a business. He has over 15 years of experience in the translation industry. Roman has helped dozens of clients increase sales by making their products appealing for speakers of other languages.