modulation in translation

Modulation in Translation

Modulation: Making Translation Culturally Coherent

As a technique, modulation in translation helps to illustrate the difference between literal translation and coherent meaning translation. The idea or meaning is the same, but the phrases that are used in the source and target languages are different – the source language is not translated word-for-word into the target language. For example:

Te lo dejo means literally I leave it to you but translates better as You can have it.

A literal translation might be grammatically correct, but it might sound unnatural or awkward or ludicrous in the target language. The importance of modulation in translation lies in the fact that it endows idiomaticity on the language of the target text, so much so that the target reader is left with the illusion that he or she is not reading a translation, but an original text.

Another example for the benefits of modulation in translation is:

‘It is not difficult to show´ is not translated into the literal ‘No es difícil de demostrar´, even though it is grammatically correct, but into the modulated ‘Es fácil de demostrar´. In order to gauge the success of using the technique of modulation in translation, the Spanish translator must try the finished product on a native speaker.


The difference in phrasing is produced in any of the following ways:

  • changing the symbols used, for example, translating 'within earshot' into 'a pocos pasos' or 'at a snail's pace' into 'a paso de tortuga';
  • changing the body parts used, for example, translating 'up to my nose' into 'hasta las cejas' or 'hand to hand combat' into ‘combate cuerpo a cuerpo';
  • changing the units of measurement from the Spanish ‘meters´ to the American ‘miles´. Change can also be produced by replacing the concrete with the abstract and vice versa, cause for effect, negation of opposites, active to passive and vice versa, space for time and time for space, etc.

Oblique Techniques

When two languages belong to the same family or culture, like Spanish and French or Spanish and Portuguese, then literal translation or word-for-word translation is the most common and the most effective technique for translation. But when two languages are as culturally and linguistically distinct as Spanish and English, then, the translator chooses what is known as an oblique technique of translation, like modulation in translation. There are quite a few other oblique techniques of translation, such as, adaptation, loan, calque, modulation, transpositioning, and equivalency.

Modulation in translation refers to the technique of shaping or regulating the words of the source text in such a manner that the resulting target text conforms to the natural patterns of the target language. Unlike transpositioning, which we will discuss in the next unit, it is not a syntactical process; it does not concern itself with the grammatical structures of the target language.

On the contrary, it devotes itself to the cultural images, the cultural icons and the symbols that populate the target language. For example, ‘Bolivia es un país mediterráneo´ is translated into ‘Bolivia is a land-locked country´, not a Mediterranean country, and ‘a carrot and stick policy´ is translated into ‘una política de pan o palo´, and not literally into 'zanahoria y palo'.


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