Preserving Literal Meaning in German Translation

One of the primary goals in German translations is to preserve the meaning of the source text in the target language with minimal loss or distortion. However, this can sometimes prove to be rather difficult, as it can sometimes be impossible to pin down the exact definition of a word in a single language, let alone to find a perfect synonym in another. Aside from this, it is very likely that two similar terms, one in the source language and one in the target language, will not overlap completely, and that one will have either a wider or a narrower meaning than the other.

Discrepancies with Literal Meaning

Although these discrepancies in meaning are not always significant in and of themselves, it is important for German translators to consider them in the context of the work as a whole, in order to more accurately reflect the ideas or implications of the source text. When producing German translations, it is often impossible to find words in the target language whose definitions correspond exactly with words in the source language; it is necessary for a translator to either broaden or narrow the literal meanings of the words.

Challenges with Literal Meaning

A few different relationships between source language words and target language words can emerge in the course of performing German translations. In the first case, a word in the target language is an exact synonym of a word in the source text, so much so that their basic denotations overlap entirely. In the second instance, one word will have a wider implication than the other, which will have a much more specified meaning. In this case, it will either be necessary for a translator to particularize”that is, to select a word in the target language with a narrower meaning than that used in the source”or to generalize, wherein the broader term is used in place of the more specific one.

In the third case, the terms in both languages have an area of overlap”a point on which their definitions and connotations match”but each also has a broader meaning outside of that common ground. In these instances, translators must make what is known as a partially overlapping translation, matching as closely as possible the meaning intended in the source text. German translations can often be rendered ineffective or incomplete by oversights in this area.

Inevitable Differences

Because of these variations in meaning, both between languages and within a single language, German translations will invariably be different from their source texts. Although this is much less likely in the case of technical translation, where worldwide standard terms have begun to emerge, literal meaning is often difficult to ascertain. This is because the exact denotation and connotations a word carries depends on the context in which it is used. Superior German translations are produced when the translator takes this into account, and makes verbal and syntactic choices that simulate, if not replicate, the source text's language within the target text.


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