Read between the lines: deeper understanding through nuanced translation

Read between the lines: deeper understanding through nuanced translation

Read between the lines: deeper understanding through nuanced translation
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We periodically share news and updates around translation, language and culture. Rest assured we’ll never share your contact information with anyone!


“Hey buddy!”

Your best friend pops down into the seat next to you at the bar and slides a cool drink your way.

“Hey! Buddy!”

You turn around and gaze up into the red face of an angry stranger. A stranger you just inadvertently cut in the bar line.

same phrase - difference in sentiment

When it comes to translation, getting the words right is only half the battle.

How can good translation deliver the nuance of language? It’s a bit difficult to answer this question definitively, given the variable and highly subjective nature of rendering a message from one language into another.

On the subjective end of the scale, there is the translation of market research materials (including questionnaires, survey guides, and qualitative research insights), movie and multimedia subtitling, and marketing messages. On the more technical, straightforward end of the scale, there are legal, medical, and other specialized (academia or government-related) translation services that have less need for interpretation. Depending on your industry or project, you may not want or need nuance and creativity.

For the more subjective types of translation services, cultural appropriateness becomes absolutely critical. The fundamental tenets of a nuanced translation take into consideration multiple aspects:

  • Intention and tone of the original language
  • Current usage norms (including slang)
  • Cultural insight
  • Subject matter expertise in the field of work (e.g., market research) and product/ service category (e.g., banking, food and beverage, etc.)
  • Linguistic accuracy

For more subjective creative translation projects, translation work demands a true blend of art and science

Nuanced: characterized by subtle shades of meaning or expression

For content that’s more subjective, nuance is everything. It’s not just the words. It’s the fine distinctions and variations implied, the tone, an ear for the cultural and linguistic understanding and intention of the original language in terms of feelings and values. And how that should be interpreted in the target language.

Whether we are pushing content out on behalf of clients or coming back the other way (e.g., pulling insights from research participants’ responses via qualitative research), we serve as nuance managers day in and day out.

Having a multi-layered approach is an asset in achieving nuance in translation. While in many cases a linguist can provide cultural insight, a team ensures expectations in both quality and accuracy are met. 

Would you go out of your way?

A PhD student came to us to translate a questionnaire about relationship quality. The initial English to Spanish translation had been done internally by the research group members, who were also Spanish speakers. Afterward, she noticed the answers from Spanish speakers were very different from those of English speakers. To capture the same meaning as the original question, the Spanish translations needed adjusting.

English to Spanish translation revisions

The question in English: (Does s/he) go out of their way to help you if you really need it?

Original translation: ¿Se esfuerza para ayudarlo(a) cuando lo necesita? (Does s/he make an effort to help you when you need it?)

Revised translation: ¿Hace todo lo posible por ayudarlo/a cuando en verdad lo necesita? (Does s/he do everything s/he can to help you when you really need it?)

The original translation did not convey what the English intended, expressing both the “help” and the “need” in a more passive way than the English version, which led to a different reaction from the native Spanish speakers.

Is there plenty of space on the lake?

An advertisement to promote the attractions of Chicago’s Navy Pier used the phrase “plenty of the space on the lake.” Although a simple phrase, the translation needed to be modified to communicate the intended meaning and explain to the audience why the space mattered. 

Chicago sign translations

Direct translation: “Mucho espacio en el lago.”

(Lots of space on the lake)

Revised translation: “Infinidad de espacio para pasear por el lago”
(Plenty of space to have a promenade on/around the lake) 

What part does nuance play in transcription?

It depends. With transcription, there is a substantial difference from a Spanish audio to Spanish transcript versus a Spanish audio to English transcript. With the former, a transcriptionist listens to the audio and types out exactly what is said, word for word – a very straightforward process. While for the latter, the text needs translation work too. To ensure the English transcription equates to the Spanish audio, cultural nuance needs to be considered. Gender guidelines, slang, and regional preferences all play a role in ensuring an accurate transcription.  

A law enforcement transcription project contained informal speech and slang. A few examples from the audio transcription illustrate how crucial regional and cultural nuances are in avoiding severe mistranslations.

Spanish original speechSimple translationTranslation taking regional/cultural nuancesDifference
Sí, yo conviví mucho con ellos.Yes, I lived with them for a long time.Yes, I spent a lot of time with them.The most common definition of “convivir” is “to live with.” However, in some Spanish-speaking countries the word is used with a less common meaning of “to spend time with.”
Necesito dinero porque no ajusto para la renta.I need money because I don’t adjust for the rent.I need money because I don’t have enough for the rent.In this context, the word “ajustar” is used in Mexico for “not having enough money for something.”
Ese tipo es un chota.(Depends on the country of origin of the speaker and the context.)Mexico: He’s a cop/policeman.
Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic: He’s a snitch.
It also has additional meanings in other Latin American countries.
Ella dijo que ocupaba eso.She said she occupied that.She said that she needed that.In this context, the word “ocupar” is used in Mexico for “needing” or “using.”
La señora me habló ayer.The woman talked to me yesterday.The woman called me yesterday.In this context, the word “hablar” is used in Mexico for “calling on the phone.”

The devil’s in the details

In the end, for nuanced translation, it’s all about the details. It was probably said best by the German Jewish philosopher Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin, 

“Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another. 

In the same way a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel.

Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections

Want to stay connected?

We periodically share news and updates around translation, language and culture. Rest assured we’ll never share your contact information with anyone!