The most important distinction: form versus content

The most important distinction: form versus content

To translate well, you must be able to distinguish between form and content.

When you first try your hand at translation, everything looks like content. This is why novice translators often translate word for word. Word-for-word translations sound exotic. But exotic English is not usually what clients want when they hire professional translators.

When you get better at translating, you sense the difference between form and content, and you intuitively translate form differently from content.

What is form?

An example of form is the way instructions are given in instruction manuals in different languages. Spanish, for instance, uses third person, impersonal expressions more than English does for giving instructions.

So while an instruction manual in Spanish might say, “The device must be plugged in” (literally translated), a manual in English would more likely tell you to, “Plug the device in”.

Of course, both languages can use either form to give instructions in manuals. But you’ll typically find the Spanish more roundabout and impersonal. English will be more direct and in the second person.

If you blindly follow the form of the source language when translating, you’ll end up with an awkward translation. To treat the reader to a non-clunky translation, you must follow target-language form.

Instruction manuals are a straightforward example. We all know what they read like in English. But even in this straightforward case, you still must have enough of a clue to realise you should change the form.

Novice translators may feel like they’re committing some kind of sin if they change “the device must be plugged in” to “plug the device in” and so not do it. Or it may not even occur to them to make such a change.

Switched-on novice translators will soon wonder why their translations don’t read like instruction manuals usually do in English. Unless the client is asking for exotic-sounding manuals, they’ll realise that they’re not giving the client what they need. With this realisation, the novice translator will start to adopt English form. And their translations will start to sound more like instruction manuals written in English.

What about content?

Content is anything that must be translated accurately. It is the message of the text and the details in it.

For instance, your instruction manual may say to charge the device for 5 hours and 32 minutes before using it for the first time. This is content. You have to say the same in English. You can’t change the numbers or use some rough expression. How you say it (the form) might differ, but the message must be the same.

So we distinguish between form and content because in each case we have to translate differently. We translate the form equivalently (by mirroring typical target-language form) so the text can be understood and reads well. We translate the content transparently (i.e., literally or descriptively) to ensure the message and the details are rendered intact.

It comes naturally…

You don’t have to realise you’re distinguishing between form and content to be doing it. But if you are translating something well — and this distinction applies to all types of translation, you must be doing it. It’s intuitive. It comes naturally.

When it gets difficult

It’s trickier to make this distinction with specialised texts.

We all know how an instruction manual should read because we’ve read enough of them. But, depending on our background, we may not be so familiar with the form used in technical or specialised documents.

To distinguish between form and content in specialised fields, we must be familiar with the document type in both our source and target languages.

The novice’s error: seeing everything as content

You shouldn’t ever translate form literally. You should always replicate the form you find in target-language documents. But you can’t do this if you don’t know how a document type is usually written in the target language. You’ll see everything as content.

Seeing everything as content happens a lot when people translate legal documents.

This is why you hear experienced but general translators bang on all day about how you need to translate anything legal word for word and letter for letter. Not doing so will get you struck by lightning before the translation even leaves your CAT tool.

Seeing everything as content is the biggest hurdle you need to get over if you want to specialise in legal translation, or any kind of specialised translation for that matter.

How do you learn to distinguish between form and content in specialised fields?

Distinguishing between form and content requires three things. We need to have experience translating the type of document in question. Second, we need to have a good understanding of the subject matter. Third, we need to know how the type of document we’re translating is usually written in the target language.

You need these three elements to intuitively distinguish between form and content.

I think the ingredient people most often lack is familiarity with the document type in the target language.

Translators get experience (often years of it) translating a document type. They might end up doing some deeper research into the field. But they may never become truly familiar with what the target document usually looks like beyond quick Internet searches.

My experience

I realised we make a distinction between form and content when I was doing my master’s in legal translation. I remember when I noticed it. It was in a lecture on English contract law. We were working in pairs sifting through different types of English contracts when the distinction jumped out at me.

I realised I’d been making this distinction when translating contracts for some time. But I’m glad I became aware of it because it’s helped me assess and improve how I translate contracts.

I have since written about making this distinction when translating contracts in this blog post and in my e-book on translating contracts into English (available here).

Feedback from other legal translators

Experienced legal translators who’ve read my e-book on translating contracts tell me that they follow a similar approach. They do roughly the same thing, even though they’ve never spelt out their approach or were even aware of some of the things they were doing.

The approach in the e-book entails more than just distinguishing between form and content. But this distinction is an essential pillar. As said above, you can’t translate anything well unless you make it. So I’d wager that these translators all appreciate this distinction in contracts.

Experience is not enough

Besides experience, these legal translators all have good subject knowledge. They have studied either law or legal translation or both, formally or otherwise.

In contrast, I’ve often found non-legal translators far warier of advice to distinguish between form and content when translating contracts. And they can be even more mistrusting of any suggestion that you could and perhaps should translate the form and content differently.

Because they’re less familiar with the subject matter, they’re still seeing contracts as all content. Hence they err on the side of translating word for word.

By non-legal translators, I mean people who don’t specialise in legal translation but who do translate legal documents when they’re asked to, contracts at least.

You may have translated contract for years. But if you’ve never investigated the matter beyond banging out translations, you’ll lack the knowledge and awareness to distinguish between form and content.

How to improve?

First, understand there is a distinction. Second, build up your subject knowledge and become more familiar with target texts so you can make the distinction.

As you learn more, you’ll start to see the difference between form and content. You’ll be better equipped to translate the document type in question because you’ll see you should translate the form and content differently and will know how to do it. This applies to all kinds of translation.

Written by Rob Lunn

Rob Lunn is a freelance translator based in Spain. He translates from Spanish and Catalan into English and specialises in legal translation.

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