The Art of Translation

  • March 14, 2005
  • Heather Simons

Federal and state law stipulate that documents addressed to parents who do not speak or read English fluently must be translated into their primary language. We differentiate interpretation from translation by using the first term in connection to oral communication, and the second term in connection to written communication. This column focuses on translation issues.

With the ever increasing number of languages spoken in one single school district, administrators and staff need to forward important documents such as notices, special education information and reports in a diverse number of first languages to their students’ families. Time pressure and diminished budgets may force school personnel to request assistance from bilingual individuals without considering the degree of difficulty and specialty that is necessary to complete such a task. Baker & Jones (1998) comment that often persons who are bilingual are asked to translate documents, but this skill “requires an excellent, thorough and up-to-date knowledge of both the source language and the target language and their respective cultures.”

The table below includes the 10 most frequently languages spoken by ELL students (English-Language Learners) with a listing of the script and word order of the languages. (US Census, 2000). Please note the great variability of languages including differences in script and structure of these languages. In addition, note the wide gap between the two most frequently languages spoken by ELL students (Spanish 81% and Vietnamese. 2%), and the fact that all other languages are spoken with frequencies that are less than 2%.

Viewing this table reminds us of the great variation in linguistic and cultural groups represented in today’s American society, hence student body,. In addition to variation in languages, there are dialects within those languages that may be marked in one or more areas that include articulation, lexicon, syntax and grammar as well as scripts. For example, different dialects of Spanish are spoken throughout the Hispanic world. A concept or object may have a different name in Colombia or Mexico. The same script is used for Cantonese and Chinese even though the spoken languages are quite different.

Language Frequency Script Word Order
Spanish 81% Roman alphabet SVO-VS0
Vietnamese 2% Roman alphabet and diacritics to mark vowels SVO-OSV
Tonal language
Hmong 1.6% Recently developed.
Roman alphabet
Tonal language
Creole Haitian 1% Roman alphabet SVO
Korean 1% Mixed script
(Indigenous and Chinese)
Cantonese 1% Logographs-12000 characters-Reading may have been re-formatted left to right instead of up-down SV0-SOV
Arabic 0.9% Naskhi script-
Reading right to left
Russian 0.8% Cyrillic SVO-SOV
Tagalog 0.7% Roman alphabet Variations
Navajo 0.6% Roman alphabet and marks for specific pronunciation S, V, O free.

Challenges and Solutions for the Translator:

Three main challenges and possible solutions are offered in working with issues related to translation.

  1. It is close to impossible to translate an original text that will be totally equivalent in another language when specific terms for a given profession or skill area are considered. The concepts may not exist in another language. For example, “screening”, “ auditory processing ”, “speech and language pathologist”, “Individual Educational Plan.”, “test ”, or “test protocol” may be difficult to translate from English onto another language..Solution: Because word- by- word translation may not be always possible, conveying the meaning of the concept will be of essence. Thus, a definition of “stuttering” may be necessary in some languages. However, the translator should discuss the meaning of the particular word or concept with the professional, and not attempt to come up with his/her own definition. The latter is not a translator’s function. The professional must assist in this process. A translator/interpreter is the bridge between two parties when they do not share the same language.
  2. Once the translation is completed, a back-translation has to be carried out to ensure that the meaning is preserved. This is a very time consuming and costly proposition, and a bilingual translator needs to be trained to complete this job adequately.Solution: Two or three districts should employ the same translator. This individual should have adequate experience in translating educational materials. However, a translator who can translate birth certificates or scientific papers may not be the best candidate to translate documents related to education, speech and language pathology, or other allied health professions without training in specific terminology and procedures followed in special education. That individual needs to understand the process and meaning of terms used in the profession. By having access to the very same person who performs the job of translator, the two or three districts can streamline their costs and ensure consistency in quality of work.
  3. The translator must be aware of multiple meanings for some terms as well as dialectal differences across the many –speaking dialects of a given language.Solution: The translator must be aware of the specific varieties for a given language. For example, some terms in Spanish (or any language for that matter) may vary according the area where the language is used. The administration needs to provide the translator with various dictionaries and access to some computer based programs as well as key phrases. One such site is Typing the name of a language and searching it through Google can yield very useful information such as characteristics of the language, the persons who speak it, dialectal variations and much more.
  • Baker, C. & Jones, S.P. (1998). Encyclopedia of bilingualism and bilingual education. Clevendon, U.K: Multilingual Matters.
  • Campbell, G.L. (1999). Compendium of the world’s languages. New York, Rouledge.
  • Cheng, L.L.R (1991). Assessing Asian language performance. Oceanside, CA: Academic Communication Associates.
  • Langdon, H.W. (2002). Interpreters and translators in communication disorders: A practitioner’s handbook. Eau Claire, WI: Thinking Publications

Please be sure to read the April ¿Qué Tal? Column
A Global Perspective on Issues of Literacy with Implications for SLPs.

As always, I do welcome your comments.

Henriette W. Langdon, Ed.D., F-CCC-SLP
Communicative Disorders & Sciences
College of Education
San José State University
San José, CA 95192-0079
408-924-4019 voice
408-924-3641 fax

Gracias – Thank you.

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