Literal French Translation I

The primary purpose of translation is conveying the meaning of the source text in the target language. Meaning, however, is a complicated term, and not simply because of the denotative and the connotative nature of words. The denotative meaning, which can also be called literal meaning, or the meaning that is given in dictionaries can also give rise to a host of problems. One of the problems is that there are many words that have more than one literal meaning. The second problem is that context plays a very important role in giving meaning to a word. The third problem is that words are, by their nature, elastic, and dictionaries are often unable to reproduce this elasticity in its listings. In the fourth place, different dictionaries often list different literal meanings for a given word.

How Translators use Literal French

The French translator must begin with the literal meanings of words. However, from the above discussion it is clear that it is quite difficult to identify the exact literal meaning of a word, especially words that describe abstract concepts. Besides, expressions that use the same words and have the same literal meanings can, in reality, end up conveying almost the opposite meanings. Literal French translation is therefore, not as easy as it sounds. On the contrary, it is plagued by uncertainty and unpredictability, and the more literary the text, the more acute the issue of uncertainty and unpredictability is. While dealing with literal French translation, the French translator must look for degrees of semantic equivalence. The term semantic equivalence’ refers to the degree to which two words, one in the source and the other in the target languages, resemble each other and stand for the same range of reference.

Differences of Literal French Translations

Some words, especially common nouns, resemble each other to the highest degree. They display the strongest semantic equivalence, and have identical ranges of references. The simplest examples of such words are cow’, flower’, computer’, etc. A more complicated example would be using two sets of words to describe the same thing, as for example, my mother’s mother’ and my maternal grandmother’. The English mother’ can be precisely translated into the French mere’. Neither context nor situation will cause any change in the meaning of these words. Such words are said to possess full synonymy’. The literal French translation of such words usually poses no challenge for the French translator, unless they mar the phonic or the prosodic symmetry of the target text.

Synonymy’, however, is frequently replaced by hyperonymy-hyponymy. A hyperonym is a word that has a wider range of meaning than the word it wishes to replace. A hyponym has a narrower range of meaning than the word it wishes to replace. Literal translation of the French word belle-mere’ amply illustrates this problem. In French, the word can mean either mother-in-law’ or stepmother’. The French word, therefore, has a greater range of meaning and any of the English words a narrower range of meaning. The French word is the hyperonym while the English words are the hyponyms. While translating the word into English, the French translator must pay attention to the context. The context will point out the accurate English synonym. Literal French translation can adopt many other strategies, some of which are detailed further on.

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