I recently read a great blog post by Avi Kallenbach of Academic Language Experts on the greatest challenge facing translators. That challenge, as he sees it, is avoiding literalism. While the meaning of the source text should be expressed as accurately as possible, linguistic features such as vocabulary and sentence structure should sound absolutely natural in the target language. Translators are sometimes so accustomed to these features in their second language that they reproduce them in their native language, where they can sound stilted.

Kallenbach provides specific strategies on how to spot and avoid this pitfall. One of my favorites is the following:

Think beyond dictionary definitions and try to capture a word’s connotation and not just its meaning.

Dictionaries are very good at helping you understand a language. However, they are not always the perfect tools for translation. For example, the Hebrew pulmus and hitpalmes are translated as “polemic” and “polemicize” respectively. While these translations are accurate, in English they carry a scholastic, medieval connotation which may be inappropriate depending on the context. Think around the concept of pulmus and consider words such as “controversy,” “attack,” or “dispute.” Translators may even consider keeping their own private dictionaries of such oblique definitions to assist them in future translations.

I love his description of thinking “around” the concept. It perfectly describes those situations when a word in the target language is the right equivalent for a word in the source language, even though it would never turn up as the dictionary definition. For instance, in my own language pair, French-to-English, blessure and plaie mean “wound,” but I have sometimes translated these terms as “pain” or “grief” when they are used idiomatically and “wound” sounds too literal. Another example is the word témoin, which literally means “witness” and is used very frequently in French non-fiction and journalism. The literal translation would have the wrong register in English because it sounds so legalistic. Instead, the “witness” should be called an “observer” or a “contemporary,” or a paraphrase can be used (“one of the guests at the gala noticed that…”).

Open question to any translators out there: have you noticed similar situations in your language pair?