January 14, 2019

Collocations – more frequent, more natural

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Translation scholar Peter Newmark (A Textbook of Translation, p. 45) equates naturalness with frequency. Sounds basic, but often ignored.

If an expression is not frequently used in target language (excluding translated material!), it will sound unnatural. The great thing about frequency is that you can measure it, unlike naturalness. This is great when you’re translating collocations (words that frequently go together).

The expressions a translator uses must be frequent in the target language – excepting the rare case that the source text author deliberately uses an expression that’s not frequent in the source language.

More commonly, the author uses an off-handed figure of speech and the translator gets lost in the literal meaning instead of understanding the function.

Translators should verify every single collocation they use, even if they think they know it by heart.

If you know two collocations that might work, just check which one gets more hits on Google. If you’re missing a word, use a corpus search engine, such as the BYU Corpus.

  • Example: “hochtönend eingeläutet” => you should be looking for the verb, the adjective is just a modifier of the verb. A modifier is an “optional element in a phrase […]“.
  • The bilingual dictionary has a few options for “einläuten.” Look for the shortest and most widely understood one, and your choice is made: “heralded.”
  • Now use corpus search to find adjectives or adverbs that typically go with “heralded.” You’ll find “loudly,” “widely” and “much.”
  • Ta-dah: three great natural choices!
Collocations with corpus search

How to find collocations using corpus search for translation

Had you literally translated “hochtönend eingeläutet,” you would have got something like “announced with loudly ringing bells.”

It’s not the author’s intention to speak about ringing bells, he is using this phrase because readers can understand it without thinking too much. This should also be your aim when seeking a target phrase.

“Literalese,” instead of giving readers a clearer picture, keeps them too busy with minor elements to understand what the text is saying.

Collocations are also very tricky for machine translation engines to solve, especially when authors get creative and use less known expressions:

Machine translation and collocations

Collocations are supposed to make reading easier – for humans…

Any comments or funny collocations? Leave them below!

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