Reading Beyond the Lines: The Translator’s Quest for Extra-Textual Information

Without summoning extra-linguistic knowledge, translators will remain at the surface of the text, whereas they need to thrust their noses deeper into the multi-layered and subtle allusion or reference.

Technology and the information revolution have opened a vast world of knowledge to all of us. Translators must develop work habits and a methodology that allow them to make the best possible use of search tools and other resources. Looking for extra-textual information is an essential component of translation, albeit one often overlooked or taken for granted. As translators and revisers, we often come across translation mistakes or poor renditions that could have been avoided if the translator had looked for additional information. Translators often deal with highly specialized, unfamiliar, or heavily negotiated documents without being involved in the process that generated them. For this reason, they need to complement their substantive information with further research to deliver a reliable translation.

Some Basic Assumptions

The most basic assumption in translation—whether translators consciously think about it or not—is that all human discourse contains a message (or intended meaning) and that somehow it is possible for a person with the right tools to grasp that message, to extract it from the container that is the source language, and transfer it into a new container, which is the target language. Whether it is possible to understand the message in all its nuances and complexity (comprehension), whether meaning can be separated from its linguistic envelop (deverbalization) without losing at least part of its integrity, and whether equivalences can be found in the target language to convey the message in a wholesome manner (reformulation) are all questions that can be debated.1 However, we do engage in the act of translating, which necessarily implies that we believe there is something in a text, some essence of meaning that can be transferred, and that different languages offer ways to transfer meaning, even though imperfectly.

Aside from this basic assumption that we hold to be universal, it is important to underscore the following additional assumptions about the act of translating, based on our experience as Arabic revisers at the United Nations.

1. A document should be approached as a whole. A sentence to be translated is unlikely to contain all the information needed to extract meaning from it for the purpose of translation. This is why it is necessary for the translator to contextualize different segments of the same text to better comprehend the meaning.

2. A document is always part of a storyline. Being aware of the full story is the best way to arrive at a correct understanding of the message. Since this is not always possible from the translator’s standpoint, seeking extra-textual information, as an integral part of the translation process, becomes the translator’s best guide. It sheds light on the evolution of the topic, resolves any ambiguities, and helps us understand patterns, including patterns of word usage.

3. Cognitive complements are indispensable to the intelligibility of a text. Translators need to mobilize their general culture and resort to other external sources of knowledge to understand the text, including its implicit and explicit elements.

4. A literal approach can never produce a good translation. Literal translation fails to transfer meaning because it produces awkward and unintelligible forms in the target language. By resorting to extra-linguistic knowledge, translators will feel more at ease with the subject and ideas, which will enable them to reformulate these ideas in a more idiomatic and accessible way. As French author Nicolas Boileau said, “What is well understood is clearly enunciated.” When we don’t understand, we automatically take refuge in the literal approach. Instead of trying to make the picture less blurry, we sink even more into the fog.

What Do We Do When We Translate?

Basically, we understand the meaning and then reformulate it in the target language. Put that way, translation may sound like a piece of cake. However, the process itself is much more complex. It involves grasping the message—separating meaning from words, getting as close as possible to what the author intended to say, and even the emotions he or she wanted to convey. This is called deverbalization. This means the translator is aware that the complete meaning is not contained in the utterance and additional research is needed. One salient example of unsuccessful deverbalization due to a lack of knowledge and insufficient research is when a translator spelled out the acronym “CBS” as “community-based services,” when in fact it referred to the Central Bank of Sudan. This mistake could have been avoided if the translator had consulted a list of acronyms included in another part of the document.

Here is another example of an ambiguous sentence requiring further research to settle its fine nuances: “Approves the investment of the Authority’s Endowment Fund for Marine Scientific Research in the Area with the United Nations Treasury.” This sentence, taken from a draft United Nations decision about budget matters, may seem simple on the surface, but an attempt to translate it shows the need for careful research in order to remove the ambiguity created by “with.”

Without summoning extra-linguistic knowledge, translators will remain at the surface of the text, whereas they need to thrust their noses deeper into the multi-layered and subtle allusions or references. By training themselves to be cognitively alert and methodically skeptical, translators will definitely enhance the quality of the output. The greatest risk translators face is to lose their alertness—to grab the first meaning that comes to mind and hold on to it with too much confidence. As William Weaver, best known for his translations of the work of Umberto Eco, Primo Levi, and Italo Calvino, puts it: “The worst mistake a translator can commit is to reassure himself by saying, ‘that’s what it says in the original,’ and renouncing the struggle to do his best.”2 Intellectual laziness is the translator’s worst enemy.

Does the Translator Need to be a Subject Matter Expert?

Translators often deal with unfamiliar topics that fall outside of their field of expertise. This has led some people to take the view that only subject matter experts are equipped to translate a given text. We do not share this opinion and believe that a well-trained translator can always educate himself or herself about the topic of the text, especially thanks to modern search tools and other easily accessible information resources. The translator is increasingly required to 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 who is willing to learn about any topic, and be perseverant enough to dig deeper into the text to understand what it means. At the same time, a translator must always be ready to question his or her own assumptions.

Common Obstacles to Understanding

Despite the variety of documents, topics, and circumstances, it appears that the vast majority of comprehension difficulties in translation fall under one of two categories:

1. Novelty: Novelty is when the translator encounters a topic or a concept that is new to them. Novelty can arise from the translator’s lack of familiarity with the topic or from the fact that the concept itself is a new coinage in the source language. For example, when translating a document about information technology, the translator may be faced with a newly coined term such as “material design,” a concept developed by Google around 2014 and introduced in more recent versions of the Android operating system.

The translator first needs to understand what “material design” means in English before setting out to find an equivalent in the target language. A quick search of the Linguee dictionary app (, for example, reveals that the majority of occurrences of “material design” deal with actual materials and are translated into French as conception des matériaux. This equivalent is useless in this context because the expression does not refer to the material of which the device is made, but rather a software design concept that makes virtual objects look more real.

Other interesting examples are “disruptive technology” and “native advertising.” Understanding the definition of the concept and devising an equivalent that covers all its semantic traits is a daunting task. For example, some equivalents suggested in Arabic for “disruptive technology” only retain the disturbance caused by such a technology, whereas it would be more relevant to look for an equivalent focusing more on its groundbreaking nature.

When faced with novelty, the translator is inevitably required to read beyond the lines to get to the bottom of the new concept through all possible means (e.g., by consulting dictionaries and encyclopedias, search engines, including images and videos when available, asking experts, reading other documents on the same topic, and examining relevant bilingual texts if available).

Through research, the translator can sometimes “witness” the event being described. For example, the “silent spectre of a candlelight vigil” referred to by the United Nations Secretary-General in his message on the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims in 2014 became much clearer to the translator after finding pictures of the event online. This inspired the translator to devise a better equivalent. In another case, watching a video on YouTube about airdropping food pallets helped the translator understand the context. Such external sources can even allow the translator to ascertain the exact title of an event, the accurate pronunciation of entities, and the names and the gender of participants referred to in the text.

2. Ambiguity: Ambiguity is a situation where the translator encounters a word, phrase, or sentence that can be interpreted in more than one way, especially when the context does not provide enough information to select a correct translation. A frequent case of ambiguity in English texts is that of nominal compounds such as “collaborative procurement agreement.” (Does “collaborative” describe procurement or agreement?)

Ambiguity can also stem from a poor word choice by the author or speaker. One translator was working on a document where the authors frequently used “nation states” instead of just “states,” implying that they had a specific category of states in mind. However, the context did not support such an interpretation. Fortunately, the translator had the opportunity to communicate with the authors. After several emails back and forth, the authors agreed to simply drop the word “nation” throughout the document.

A poor grammatical construction or a spelling mistake in the text can also create ambiguity (e.g., when “export specialists” was misspelled as “expert specialists,” or when “lessens the burden” appeared in the text as “lessons the burden”). Seemingly insignificant typing errors like these can cause a lot of unnecessary pain for the translator. This is the reason texts need to be edited carefully, but not all clients are ready to allocate the necessary resources to do this.

Finally, there are cases of deliberate ambiguity, especially in diplomatic discourse. The example of intended ambiguity in the withdrawal clause in United Nations Security Council resolution 242 is notorious.3

Some may argue that all the translator needs to do when faced with ambiguity is simply to carry it over to the target language (i.e., keep the translation ambiguous in the same way). However, it is not always possible to find a word or phrase in the target language that carries the same multiple meanings. Add to this that tolerance for ambiguity may vary depending on the audience or even the culture.

Faced with ambiguity, research is again the best tool in the translator’s hands. Specific tools include relating the text to other texts on the same topic to see if they can shed light on the ambiguity (rel-texting, chron-texting). Previously translated documents (bi-texting) can also give the translator new ideas based on how other translators approached the issue.4

Common Obstacles to the Transfer of Meaning

Having overcome novelties and ambiguities, the translator now has a clear idea of what was said in the source sentence. The ensuing journey is to transfer the meaning to a new cultural and linguistic context and to dress it appropriately so that it can be presented to a new audience. That journey can also be fraught with challenges. Here are two challenges that we have often encountered while translating or revising:

1. Equivalency: Equivalency is about finding an expression in the target language to convey the same idea expressed in the source language. It is one of the most intractable difficulties in translation because some words or expressions may not yet have been coined in the target language, or they may not have a well delimited equivalence. For example, the abovementioned expression “disruptive technology” does not seem to have a definitive equivalent in a number of languages. In Spanish, you may find tecnología desestabilizadora, tecnología perturbadora, tecnología revolucionaria, or any number of variants.

Sometimes even an apparently simple term such as “default position” can be troublesome. In some cases, words seem to be ganging up against the translator. For example, a word like “chair” or “stool” should not cause any translation issues. But if you were translating into a language like Arabic and had to distinguish chairs from stools, you would be hard-pressed to come up with a good solution. In other cases, cultural gaps between languages make it difficult to coin an equivalent expression that will be understood and accepted by users of the target language. For example, finding neutral equivalents for gender orientation concepts in Arabic has been a long process. Even now, neutral terms for gays and lesbians have not been universally adopted.

True and accurate equivalency is a rare gem, which can only be encountered, with a little bit of luck, after a lot of digging. Sometimes the best equivalent is not strictly an equivalent, but a much longer explanation. In some cases, the choice of equivalent is dictated by established usage. This is why using idiomatically appropriate equivalents is an essential element of a good translation.

A special type of equivalency is the problem of back translation when you have names (especially geographical names), quotations, or other references in your source language that are originally from the same target language into which you are translating. For example, “local plant” in a text about the situation in the Palestinian occupied territories was back translated in Arabic after thorough research as “,” (gundelia), which is an edible plant that the local Palestinian population gathers and sells in the market. In this case, the best scenario would be to find the original reference and copy it as is. For instance, when translating a document into English containing references to the United States Constitution, the translator needs to quote the English text of the Constitution.

How do we go about solving an equivalency problem? The best way is to exhaust all available resources to understand the concept and find the most appropriate equivalent in the target language. One possible resource is to look at translations into other languages to see how other translators dealt with the problem. As a last resort, you can coin your own equivalent using common sense and your best judgment.

2. Consistency: To be consistent, translators need to ensure that their translations are coherent throughout the document and that they use words and expressions that allow for a continuum when compared to previous texts on the same topic. Consistency does not come easy. It requires constant vigilance and checking.

An even more challenging level of consistency is consistency throughout a set or series of documents. We are not saying that everything needs to be translated exactly the same way all the time, but if you see a set of related documents as telling a story, you do not want it to be a story where the names of the players keep changing all the time. You do not want a person whose name on her passport is “Layla” to be referred to sometimes as “Laila,” or “Leila,” or even “Lily.” Consistency is particularly important in a multi-translator/reviser context. It is crucial that the final document does not look incongruous. Keeping the same equivalents of recurring items, titles, or subtitles in a document is a good example of consistency.

Consistency is hardest to achieve when dealing with several sources. When the translators encounter references (especially direct quotations) from previous documents, they may find that such texts were not translated in a consistent manner. This is an area where modern computer-assisted translation tools can provide valuable help, first by showing the degree of inconsistency in a set of documents, and then by presenting the various options, including terminology, so that translators can make an enlightened choice.

No Such Thing as a Perfect Translation

Translation is intrinsically a human activity, and for many a form of art. Therefore, there is no such thing as a perfect translation. We will always make mistakes, either 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 manner over the linguistic and cultural gap. Mistakes can also be caused by other 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, notwithstanding all these imperfections.

We believe that translators, by paying attention to the issues above and doing their utmost to address them within the allotted time constraints, will at least be able to avoid a few serious mistakes that can be detrimental to their work and ultimately to their reputations. As judiciously noted by Umberto Eco:
“[…] Yet, the translator’s success lies precisely in achieving invisibility.” After all, it is no secret in the world of translation that excellent translations generally go unnoticed while translation mistakes become the talk of the town.

Finally, we do not want to leave the impression that translation is only about toiling in anonymity. It is most of all a source of wonder, pride, joy, and satisfaction for every genuine translator.

  1. “Interpretive Approach,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, edited by Mona Baker (Routledge, 1998), 112–114.
  2. William Weaver, “The Process of Translation, The Edinburg Journal of Gadda Studies,
  3. “Clarity or Ambiguity? The Withdrawal Clause of UN Security Council Resolution 242,” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs, November 2014),
  4. Foster, Christopher, and Alan Melby. “Context in Translation: Definition, Access, and Teamwork,” The International Journal for Translation and Interpreting Research, Volume 2, No 2 (2010),

Nahla Baydoun is a reviser at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. From 1991 to 2008, she was an assistant professor and chair of the Languages and Translation Department at the University of Balamand in Lebanon, as well as an English>Arabic and French>Arabic freelance translator. She has translated works of authors such as Amin Maalouf, Susan Sontag, Malika Mokeddem, and Yasmina Khadra into Arabic. She has a master’s degree in translation from the Ecole Supérieure d’interprètes et de traducteurs and a PhD in translation studies from the Sorbonne Nouvelle University—Paris III, France. Contact:

Ibrahima Diallo is a senior reviser. He is currently the chief of the Arabic Language Unit at the United Nations Office in Nairobi (UNON) and the text project coordinator for UNON, which is in charge of developing an online translation platform for the United Nations. Previously, he worked as training coordinator for the UN Department for General Assembly and Conference Management at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. His working languages are Arabic, English, and French. He also speaks Spanish and several African languages. He has a master’s degree in modern languages with a minor in applied linguistics from the University
of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Contact:

The ATA Chronicle © 2022 All rights reserved.