Translation Challenges – Emphasizing Text In International Translations

Translation Challenges

We use different types of emphasis in our writing and presentations to call attention to certain words or phrases, to set information apart, to designate a word or title as special.

There are a number of ways we go about exaggerating or differentiating our text in the western world. The most common are through the use of italics, boldface, capital letters, variance of text style or size, quotation marks, underlining, and highlighting.

  • Typically, we use italics to reference a foreign word when used in an all English text. Suppose the word flughafen was used in a sentence, it would be common to indicate its foreign origin through italics. Italics are also used to designate books, magazines, and newspaper titles, as well as many proper names.
  • The use of ALL CAPITALS is typically reserved for great emphasis or section headings, especially in charts or graphs.
  • Type style alteration is generally used to set information apart. It can be used to delineate a header or informative text from the main text, or it can be used to draw attention to certain areas of a graph or flyer. Emboldening text draws your eyes to the bolded words and is useful for calling attention to keywords or items that must be quickly noticed during visual scanning. We typically do not underline words anymore unless they are included in a hyperlink. To do so is considered “amateurish”.

When the West Isn’t Always Right

Those who read bilingual texts, especially texts that differ greatly in style, know that there are great differences between western ideals of emphasis and those used in other parts of the world. While most of the romance languages follow a similar path, there are significant differences when you move into the Middle Eastern and Asiatic languages.

In the Middle East, many of the Arabic languages draw a line over the letters of the emphasized words. In Asian languages such as Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, a dot is placed under each character to be emphasized and italics are not used.

However, it should be noted that in Arabic and many Asiatic languages, there are differences between formalized language, historic language, and modern, common text. Many times modern texts will use modified western approaches to emphasize words and ideas.

You may be wondering what the big deal is…can’t the translator just switch a bold word to one with a line over the letters or a dot under them? Oh, if only things were so easy.

Translations are very rarely word-for-word, and a single translated word may end up becoming a phrase. The word that is emphasized in English may not carry as much weight in another language and emphasizing it would come off as odd. Further, words that would not typically receive emphasis in English MUST be emphasized in other languages.

For example, the names of government officials or deities might always be displayed in bold or even bold plus an extra large font. In Islamic texts, the phrase “alayhi as-salām (عليه السلام)”, “peace be upon him” (abbreviated PBUH in English) always accompanies the names of prophets, especially the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH). This phrase is rarely used in English texts, but would cause a major cultural dilemma if left out of one that went to an Arab nation.

The Challenges of Translation Emphasis

Note that it is not just translating emphasis that is in a text, but the translator must also identify areas of emphasis that should be, or should never be, in the target language or target culture.

The challenge is greatest when an emphasized word does not exist in the target language or has to be explained. For example, an English text might stress the word wisdom, but this is a word that often does not translate well into other cultures.

Similarly, a Japanese text might highlight the word Kyoikumama, feeling that it is an important part of a sentence. The translation in English is estimated as “a mother who consistently and fervently pushes her children to academic success and achievement.” Would it make sense to highlight that whole sentence in English? If not, which word would be highlighted, if any?

The challenge of the translator is to ensure that the text reads as if it were written by a native fluent in the language. In order for this to take place, textual emphasis may need to be added, altered, or deleted.

It is very important for document authors and translators to keep open lines of communication and discuss any challenges that arise in formatting, including the use of emphasis to highlight, accent, or delineate text.

This post is written by Robert Stitt, a content writer with Ulatus.

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