To translate, we should know not only source language and target language and the translation rules but also the subject, situation, circumstances, in which the text functions. Sometimes we have to resort to so-called extralinguistic knowledge (auxiliary information or background knowledge) to make a correct translation.
What is extralinguistic knowledge?
There are basic elements that a professional translator needs to apply while doing translation or interpretation. Key factors here are the use of linguistic and extralinguistic knowledge. These two form the basis for the translator skills. They are the application of methods, research, and problem identification and resolution.
So, extralinguistic knowledge means any knowledge one possesses that is outside knowledge of the language.
What is the translator’s competence?
A translator draws on all kinds of knowledge while translating, and such knowledge falls broadly into two types: linguistic and extralinguistic.
In addition, a professional translator must possess translation methodological analysis, i.e., knowledge and skills involving problem identification, problem-solving, decision-making, subject research skills, etc.
A translator’s competence might also involve self-concept, aptitude and personality, attitudes and affective factors, translation effort, apprehension of translation, etc.
Also, since these components of translator competence appear to complement each other, a translator lacking in either can resort to other components to compensate for that absence.
The overall competence level of a translator correlates with the overall quality of the translation. However, it does not mean that each component contributes equally to improve the final output.
There might be a hierarchy among them, meaning that some components might be more important than others in determining the quality. Given the fact that most translation work involves more or less specialized texts, it is likely that extralinguistic knowledge, rather than linguistic competence itself, plays a major role in the successful translation.
For example, a scientist can translate a scholarly scientific article better than a professional translator who has little or no scientific knowledge. Here, scientific knowledge, rather than the languages involved, becomes a major factor influencing the product.
One necessary prerequisite for successful comprehension is knowledge. For textual comprehension, the knowledge available and what is its structure is more important than what language the subject speaks.
Does the translator need to be a subject matter expert?
Translators often deal with unfamiliar topics that fall outside their field of expertise. This has led people to take the view that only subject matter experts can to translate a text. We believe a well-trained translator can always educate himself or herself about the text, especially thanks to modern search tools and other easily accessible information resources. The translator must show skills that go beyond the mere mastery of two languages. Nowadays, a translator must be well-read and curious about the world, be a tireless researcher willing to learn about any topic and be perseverant enough to dig deeper into the text to understand what it means. A translator must always be ready to question his or her own assumptions.
How important is extralinguistic knowledge?
Questions can arise on how important extralinguistic knowledge is and how to apply it in translation processes, or in what way it is important. To illustrate, a translator cannot translate successfully without understanding a source text (ST). And she /he is likely to come across comprehension problems (of various sorts and in varying degrees) at one point or another.
There seem to be two major strategies used in solving comprehension problems: one is an inference and the other is the use of reference books. Let’s say a translator does not know an ST item (lack of linguistic competence). She /he can infer meaning or refer to a dictionary (use of translation methods). Here, one cannot say for sure whether inference as a comprehension strategy is superior to the use of dictionaries.
However, studies suggest that excessive and unguided use of dictionaries, especially bilingual dictionaries, is not desirable. Which strategy to use, or which to use first, depends on whether the relevant knowledge is available.
There are two basic types of knowledge applied in the comprehension: linguistic knowledge and extralinguistic knowledge. The used knowledge seems to determine the level of reached comprehension, which ultimately affects the product quality. There are language experts who posit three levels at which comprehension operates in translation: linguistic level, textual level, and notional level. Studies show that a translator who can conceptualize ‘contextual’ meaning at the notional level based on linguistic and extralinguistic knowledge can translate more successfully and creatively.
A translator who remains at the linguistic and textual levels and fails to access fully the notional level (perhaps, with no extralinguistic knowledge) finds the ‘literal’ meaning and ends up with less successful translation. Extralinguistic knowledge is important in the construction of comprehension because it enables a translator to comprehend a text at deeper, notional levels.
What is a successful translation?
The characteristic feature of successful translation is the extensive use of extralinguistic knowledge together with linguistic knowledge. Unsuccessful translation has linguistical orientation only.
The availability and the use of extralinguistic knowledge is a major factor in determining the quality of the translation product. Specifically, extralinguistic knowledge seems to precede linguistic knowledge in its contribution to translation: it makes it possible for a translator to infer meaning at cognitive levels, leading to in-depth comprehension and thus successful translation.
How to apply this extralinguistic knowledge properly?
- A translator should consider that a reader is unaware of specific realities of another country he lacks the knowledge to understand this passage. The volume of knowledge of native speakers and readers of the translated material is different and itis a normal situation.
- A translator should remove this misunderstanding via two credible ways: either, by omitting unimportant details, or conversely, by supplementing additional information for restoring the message.
No such thing as a perfect translation
Translation is intrinsically a human activity, and for many, it is an art. Therefore, there is no such thing as a perfect translation. We will always make mistakes, because the author’s intent somehow escaped our grasp despite our best efforts, or because we could not find a clear and simple way to carry the message in a wholesome over the linguistic and cultural gap. There are multiple reasons for making mistakes. It happens due to human factors, such as mental fatigue, distractions of all kinds, or lack of time and inspiration. However, we never give up and continue to translate, despite all these imperfections.