Syntactic and Semantic Problems of Translation


According to Oxford dictionary, Translation means “The process of translating words or text from one language into another”.  Etymologically the word ‘Translation’ is derived from Latin word Trans means carry across and Laturn means goods. (Here goods means language, knowledge). Translation must take into account constraints that include context, the rules of grammar of the two languages, viz. Source Language (SL) and Target Language (TL), their writing conventions, and their idioms. A common misconception is that there exists a simple word-for-word correspondence between any two languages, and that translation is a straightforward mechanical process; such a word-for-word translation, however, cannot take into account context, grammar, conventions, and idioms.

Significance of Translation

Due to globalization and highly increasing communication technology, the interaction between languages and cultures translation is playing crucial role in our lives. In Indian context, translation assumes added significance in view of the fact that India is multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-religion country. The communication within India is possible at some extent due to translation. Due to translation the Indian literature like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Gitanjali have gained world recognition. Without translation the world would have been deprived of the works of Kalidas, Bhasa, Plato, Aristotle, Chekhov and Shakespeare.

Theory of Equivalence and Types of Translation

While translating one should keep in mind that no two languages are identical Translation involves far more than replacement of lexical and grammatical items between languages. There can be no absolute correspondence between two languages. Therefore, there can be no fully exact translations. Translation may be close to the original but cannot be exact.

Eugene Nida (Nida 25) finds out four types of translation equivalences.

(1).   Linguistic equivalence (word for word translation)

(2).   Paradigmatic equivalence. (elements of grammar)

(3).   Stylistic (translational) equivalence. (invariant of identical meaning)

(4).   Textual (syntagmatic) equivalence. (equivalence of form and shape)


Translation may be of several types as mentioned below.

  1. Full versus partial – In full translation the entire text is submitted to the translation process. In partial translation some parts of the SL text are left untranslated as they are regarded as untranslatable or for deliberate purpose of introducing ‘local colour’ into the TL text.

  2. Total versus restricted translation: – This distinction relates to the levels of language involved in translation. In total translation SL grammar and lexis are replaced by equivalent TL grammar and lexis. Restricted translation means that translation is performed only at the phonological or at the graphological level, or at only of the two levels of grammar and lexis.

The ideal translation should be…

  • Accurate: reproducing as exactly as possible the meaning of the source text.
  • Natural: using natural forms of the receptor language in a way that is appropriate to the kind of text being translated.
  • Communicative: expressing all aspects of the meaning in a way that is readily understandable to the intended audience.

Problems of Translation

The very first problem in translation is what to translate? Each translator has his own way of choosing the text. To translate a work is to dignify it. Hence, the work chosen must be worth the dignity attributed to it. The work should have proven readership. Another important problem regarding translation is who should translate? The author or an alien? There is one possibility that when the author translates his own work, he can overcome certain problems but at the same time when an author translates his own work, he is likely to take greater and undue liberties with the original with an intention to improve the original. On the other hand when another person who is not author translates a work, he is more respectful to the original and aims at the closest approximation of SLT. The third problem which is the problem of all problems probably is “how to translate?” All those who have tried their hands in translation would have some answer for this question but there will be no perfect solution for the problems of translation because the problems of translation are the problems of language and culture which are highly complicated. Basically the problems seen during the translation process are as under.

The process of translation is mainly a process of communication between languages. Each act of translation involves problems of equivalence between the SL and TL. They involve problems like loss of meaning,    addition of meaning, skewing of meaning – distorted or bias.

Syntactic Problems of Translation

The syntax i.e. grammar and sentence structure of every language is different so a translator has syntactic problems in translation. While translating from SL to TL the verb-on state and action, being and doing, and various ways of marking time play a vital role. Here participle forms, passive forms, conditionals, tenses etc. play an important role in translation .All these four aspects are so closely interrelated that they can be better studied in context than in isolation. SL influence is of major in this context. Structure is more important than lexis. So the overall sentence is shaped rather than individual choice of words. As the translator is influenced by the SL, he tries to reproduces rather than look for a more appropriate structure in the TL.

Signs, notices and instructions may be translated from SL to TL keeping in mind language’s own set forms and expressions and culture.

For e.g. વાહનો અહીં પાર્ક કરવા નહીં.

Can be translated as,

No Parking or Parking is prohibited here.

e.g. Trespassers will be prosecuted.

Can be translated as,

આ રાહદારીઓનો રસ્તો નથી. Or રાહદારીઓ એ પ્રવેશવાની મનાઇ છે.or અનઅધીકૃત પ્રવેશ કરનાર વિરુધ્ધ કાયદાકીય પગલાં લેવામા આવશે.

“Tense,” is the label for the markers that languages add to verbs in order to specify the time reflected in that verb. Many languages don’t separate verbs and adjectives, this often includes the class of words English speakers would call adjectives; in English it is handled by adding tense to a “helping verb” and including that with the adjective. Tense is only one of the mechanisms languages use to specify time for verbs. The only actual tense that English has is the past tense, marked by adding an “-ed” morpheme (the smallest unit of speech) to “regular” verbs.

English has no future tense; it expresses future time by putting “will” [or (more formally) “shall” or (less formally) “going to”] in front of the verb. Or – it expresses future time with a time phrase like “tomorrow” or “next Tuesday” plus the construction that is called “the English present tense.” As in “The train leaves tomorrow at dawn.”

“Aspect”, a term that is only coincidentally involved with expressing time refers to the point where a verb falls on a continuum (range) from “starting” to “finishing”; it may also include things like patterns of repetition. Many words that have been floating about undefined…. Words like “perfective” and “imperfective” and “progressive,” for example … are part of aspect, not part of tense. All languages have a list of things that must be specified if a sentence is to be considered grammatical. And then they have a list of things that are optional. English, in the context of this discussion, only requires that sentences specify two things for the verb: (a) whether the time was or was not past time; and (b) whether the act or state has been completed or not. Everything else is optional.

Semantic Problems in Translation

Semantics is the study of meaning. It focuses on the relation between signifiers, like words, phrases, signs, and symbols, and what they stand for, their denotation. Linguistic semantics is the study of meaning that is used for understanding human expression through language. Dr.Johnson believes that concept of notion or idea about describing any things do exist in our mind before we have words to describe them. There may be different notions about different concepts in SL and TL, a good translator dissect the words and selects the most appropriate one for a particular idea.e.g. In English, in addition to day/night, morning/afternoon, we also have dawn, sunrise, early morning, mid-morning, noon, midday, late afternoon, dusk, twilight, evening etc. In Hungarian there is a distinction between ‘Good-morning before breakfast’ and ‘Good morning after breakfast.’ For dusk in English we have સંધ્યા,ગોધુલી,ગોરજ  as different words depending on different concepts and references. Nakedne (નગ્ન(  means without clothes whereas nude  (નાગોis a form of art. .

Different languages have their own concept of expressing their own causality. In English make+verb, noun, adjective expresses causality. E.g. make to move, make easier.The perception, familiarity with one’s mother tongue occurs in translation. The single word noticed can be presented in different context. e.g.

I noticed him just as he was turning the corner. જોવું

I noticed that he was in a bad mood.નોંધ લેવી

Next morning we noticed the outlines of an island. જાહેરાત,ખબર આપવી

Notice the detail at the centre of the mosaic. ધ્યાન માં લેવા યોગ્ય.

The Concise Oxford dictionary defines idiom as: “Language of a people or country; specific character of this; form of expression peculiar to a language or person, peculiarity of phraseology from those of the separate words; characteristic mode of expression in music, art, etc.” This aspect covers the transfer of expression from one culture to another. It indicates what lies behind the words: tone, innuendo, implication, hidden reference, irony, metaphor, imagery etc. They should not be just translated but also interpreted.

The question which lies beyond the dictionary lie on both sides of the borders idiomatic expressions must be interpreted in the culture of TL. Colloquial language, dialectical expressions, proverbs, jargons, differs not only from one language to another but even within the same language. Spoken language is more important in idiomatic expression than written form of the same idiom. So, before translating, one must think: How would I say this in my own language? So here it is more important that whether the translation is clear than whether it is accurate. So a translator should keep the following points in mind.

(a). Do not translate an idiomatic expression literally, if it makes no sense in TL.

(b). Check if the idiomatic expression is dead or alive i.e. used in expression or not.

(c). If the image is powerful or strikingly concise, such as the celebrating glasnost, retain the original word with an appropriation in brackets (‘Openness’).

Some English proverbs/idioms are translated into Gujarati as under.

Too many cook spoil the broth.

ઝા ઝા રસોઇયા રસોઇ બગાડે.

Some Gujarati proverbs and their equivalent in English are as under:

નાચવું નહિ તેને આંગણુ વાંકુ-A bad workman finds faults with his tools.

દૂધ નો દાઝ્યો છાશ ફૂંકી ફૂંકી ને પીએ.-A burnt child shuns the fire.


Along with above, there are many more issues that a person may face while translating. And that is because of differences in grammar, word order, culture etc. Cultural barrier is also a major issue in translation because certain words acquire their meaning in context with the cultural identity of the region where they are used e.g ‘Petrol Pumps’ are ‘Gas Stations’ in U.S. Similarly, Dhoti, Bhajan Gazal, Sindur and many other words are not having alternatives in languages like English. It can be said that it is better to make translation a readable, enjoyable activity and one should try to that it should be clearly understood by the reader.

Work Cited

  1. Catford, J.C.A Linguistic Theory of Translation, An Essay in Applied Linguistics, London: Oxford University Press, 1965.Print.
  2. Duff, Alan Translation, Oxford: OUP, 1989.Print.
  3. Newmark, Peter. Approaches to Translation, Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1981.Print.
  4. Nida, E. Towards a Science of Translation. Leiden: Brill,1964.Print.

Dr. Chetan Joshi, Department of English,  Sabarmati Arts & Science College,  Sabarmati, Ahmedabad.

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