Machine Translation, Translation

Overcoming Lexical Issues in Translation: Role of Lexemes & Function Words

lexical isues in translation

A sign on a golf course in Europe reads: “ANY PERSONS (EXCEPT PLAYERS) CAUGHT COLLECTING GOLF BALLS ON THIS COURSE WILL BE PROSECUTED AND HAVE THEIR BALLS REMOVED”.

There are no problems with lexeme and function word usage on this sign, however, semantically there are some obvious issues.

While lexical complexities may lead to humorous results when read by a non-involved third party,  they are anything but funny when reflected in your documents, papers, or projects.

General Motors lost millions of dollars when they failed to understand that “Nova” in Spanish would be read as “No va” or “It will not go”. By the time the cultural faux pas was discovered, GM had already launched a major marketing campaign for their car, the Cheva Nova, in South America. The car was eventually rebranded as the Chevrolet Chevy since nobody wanted to buy a car that would not go.

Understanding Lexemes and Function Words

Lexemes are the main parts of speech that convey meaning: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and so forth. Function words hold the lexemes together like mortar might solidify the bricks in a wall. Lexemes express concepts; function words define grammatical functions such as number and plurality, past, present, future, tense, etc. Grammatical functions are often formed with prefixes and suffixes.

Lexemes with simple and singular meanings are a translator’s dream. Polysemous words, lexemes with multiple meanings, not only cause confusion but can lead to improper translation, erroneous information, and cultural gaffes. The most common of these words are denoted as homophones, homographs, and polysemes.

Lexical Issues in Translation

Words with multiple meanings, used in several different ways in the same text translation, can create many challenges during translation. When using the word “run” it could be a tear in a woman’s stocking, the physical act of running, the act of pursuing an ambition “run for president”, a course “toboggan run”, or even a streak of good luck, “Jim had quite a run at the roulette wheel.” When words have more than one meaning but the word is used the same way throughout the text, translation difficulty is mitigated.

Colloquial expressions, translated word-for-word, will certainly elicit a troubled document. Translations should be expressed by way of equivalent expression in the target language. The problem is that there is often no equivalent expression in the culture. The best way to avoid this issue is to use clear, concise, and exacting words during the creation of the source material, avoiding metaphors, similes, and analogies.

Slang words, buzz words, and other societal or culturally-dependent text should be avoided unless critical to the text.  When “bad” means good and “sick” means “outstanding” then the chances of translation error is increased.

Linguistic relativity in the target language is a major challenge. The source text may reference snow, but if the target language was Inuit three are over two dozen ways to translate snow based on the context: fluffy snow, slushy snow, blowing snow, snow that is good for making snowballs, etc.). In the Arabic world, there is no one word that can express the English equivalent of “compromise”.

Overcoming Lexical Challenges

When a source text is clean, clear, and unambiguous, and the target language is an excellent lexical match, then the translation process is quick and painless. When things are not quite so perfect, there are three essential skills your translator must have.

  1. Your translator must be able to see the document as a whole and create the translation clarity that was missing in the source text. When many denotations of a polyseme are used, the translator must be able to identify the correct usages and ensure the translation is accurate. A foundational element of clarity is native-level fluency in the source and target language.
  1. Cultural Awareness. Ensure your translator knows more than the language. Properly used lexemes that are not culturally relevant lead to “Nova” situation, or worse (think about the golf course). Getting lunch may seem simple enough, but lunch in Spanish is almuerzo and almuerzo usually connotes more of a brunch. If you really wanted “lunch” you would ask for la comida. Unless, of course, you were in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, or Peru where la comida means supper.
  1. Subject-area Expertise. Since buzzwords, acronyms, and the like are a major source of lexical challenges, you need a translator who is an expert in the specific field for which the document is being translated.

If you are just starting on your project, creating clear, concise text will save you time and money in the translation process. Should your text already be completed, be certain that your translator has the expertise to overcome any challenges that may arise from uncommon lexeme and function word use.

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