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  • Writer's pictureCarlie Sitzman MA, CT

The Importance of Context in Translation: Pictures

Updated: Apr 15, 2021

Removing the pictures from a text to make it easier to send electronically may seem like a fantastic idea. For a translator, however, this approach can be problematic. In order to create the very best translation of a text, the translator must fully understand what is going on and be able to form a picture in their mind of what the text is describing. Translators can usually achieve this without a problem with texts that were not written to accompany a picture. The original author is expecting that readers will need a little extra help to visualize the concepts they contain.

When an author writes something specifically to accompany a picture, however, they often subconsciously make it much less descriptive. It is common for a text and picture symbiosis to take shape, weaving the two components together to form a complete whole.

Ripping a text from its picture and shipping it off to a translator thus becomes the equivalent of tearing a text to shreds and sending the mangled pieces for translation. As you may imagine, translators are often troubled when they open their email to see a text in such a sorry state. What exactly is it like to translate a text that has received this treatment? Let’s take a look at some lonely, pictureless texts through the lens of a translator to find out.

Imagine you have just received this text from a client, without pictures. You are supposed to translate it into your language. Choose a foreign language you are fluent in, otherwise I dare say your translation may be scarier than any other picture-free translation out there. Read each text and try to form a picture of what is being described in your head. Only once you have formed the picture in your head can you translate it into your language. At the end, you will see the text with their corresponding pictures to compare. No peaking! Just in case you are wondering what a translator might think of such phrases, I have included mental commentary from a translator for your perusal along the way.

Of Tribes and Helicopters

“Festival goers of the "Farlander" tribe carry a helicopter stolen from another tribe during the 10th annual Wasteland Weekend on September 28, 2019.”

Translator’s Thoughts on Tribes and Helicopters

Carrying? How in the world are these people carrying a helicopter? Who is that strong? Is it a toy helicopter? I wonder if they put it on something? A truck, a bus, a wagon pulled by Clydesdales? My language has several translations of the word “carry”, each specific to how something is being carried. I had better figure out how they are carrying it so I can pick the right translation. Tribe, tribe……I definitely have to specify what kind of tribe it is in the language I am translating into. I wonder what kind of tribe? A Native American tribe? A Bedouin tribe? Another type of tribe I’m not aware of? If I could see what they were wearing, maybe I could guess and then back up my decision up with research. I had better request the picture.

What is this contraption?

“Carefully lift the shingles. Try to install the screen between the shingles and the underlayment or between two layers of shingles. Don’t install under the underlayment.”

Translator’s Thoughts on the Contraption

Why, pray tell, are they installing a screen between the shingles? Is this some kind of shingle filter? There are so many different translations of the word “screen” in my language. I will need to know exactly how the screen functions in order to choose the right one. And why are they lifting the shingles? I thought those things were permanently attached!! Is there something wrong with them? Are they patching something on the roof? I wonder where they are installing it? At the top, at the bottom, in the center of the roof? I’ve heard of gutter screens. I wonder if that’s it? I don’t want to assume that’s it though and then find out another type of screen exists and that’s what it is. I’m going to research screens and meshes on rooves, but if there is more than one type of screen or mesh that can be installed on a roof, there is no hope for this without a picture.

Finally Reunited


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