Causes of Failure in Translation and Strategies Translation Theory translation jobs
Home More Articles Join as a Member! Post Your Job - Free! All Translation Agencies

Causes of Failure in Translation and Strategies

Become a member of at just $12 per month (paid per year)

Abstract: Translation is communication. When the translation causes trouble in understanding or results in zero communication, it is a failure. This paper makes an analytical study on what causes such failure: one is a misconception that translation is a word-for-word process whereas the other is the translator’s blindness to cultural differences. In an attempt to solve these problems, two corresponding strategies are suggested for beginners. Translation is never that easy as a target word for a source word. The translator must accommodate to target linguistic conventions so that the translated piece reads smoothly, if not pleasantly. Further, the translator must accommodate to target culture so the translated piece is culturally acceptable.


1.      Misconception

To begin with, let’s look at some examples which are produced by some students in their translation exercises and in their talks with the foreign teachers as well.

1.       Your coat is broken.
2.       I am uncomfortable.
3.       Little children are difficult to understand that.
4.       I went, she was not in, had to come back.

The list may extend to a much greater length, but it’s enough for our current purpose. Sentence number one is obviously a word for word translation of the Chinese word po. In Chinese po is something like a super-ordinate that can collocate with anything, be it clothes or utensils or the human body. Yet in English different occasions require different hyponyms such as torn, shatter, crack, fracture, rip, tatter, shred, split, burst and others. The correct collocation is ‘torn coat’ rather than ‘broken coat’. Sentence number two is the result of phrase-for-phrase translation of the Chinese wobushufu which indicates a physical disorder or an sickness. ‘Uncomfortable’ in English does not usually mean illness. So the correct expression ought to be ‘I don’t feel well’ or simply ‘I am ill’. Sentence number three sounds awkward because it is against the English sentential convention. Normally the same meaning would be conveyed by ‘It is difficult for children to understand that’. Sentence number four is quite exemplary of the students’ ignorance of the sentential relations between Chinese and English. Chinese sentences are loosely connected with one another and the comma seems omnipotent for stringing sentences together. Unlike that in Chinese, English uses cohesive words for similar purposes. Thus, the good English comes to be ‘I went to look for her but she was not in, so I had to come back’. Other mistakes in that sentence include a ‘subjectless clause’ which is legitimate in Chinese grammar so long as it does not cause trouble in anaphora. However it must be born in mind that it is bad language in English.

These are but preliminary analysis for linguistic conventions also cover coherence, cohesion, pragmatics and so on.

My students actually do more English-Chinese translation exercise than vice versa. Owing to their native linguistic competence, that is not where most problems lie.

2.        Blindness to Cultural Differences

Translation does not only happen intra-linguistically but inter-linguistically. It is natural that different languages entail different cultures behind it. Without such consciousness and appropriate cultural knowledge it would be no surprise that communication failed. The following examples are quoted so often that they have raised to the classic status in translation circles.

In a diplomatic occasion in the old times, the foreigner praised the mandarin’s wife by saying ‘You have a beautiful wife’. The mandarin replied with the traditional Chinese expression when being praised ‘nali, nali’. The incompetent interpreter gave the literal translation of the phrase ‘Where? Where?’ The puzzled diplomat, thinking hard for a moment, said, “ She is beautiful everywhere!”  Today few would make such a mistake unless they were quite confined and knew little about western etiquette in polite conversation.

Another mandarin was a hot-tempered guy. When he disagreed with his counterpart he snorted rather rudely ‘fangpi’ which means bullshit or nonsense. When the interpreter literally translated it into ‘Who farted’, the confused diplomat replied, “Why, I didn’t.”  Even if we forget about the word-for-word mistake, it is still quite inappropriate on such a formal occasion to say ‘bullshit’ in the face of a diplomat. I would, instead, accommodate it to a much milder tone, “I don’t agree with you there.” Or “That’s too much for us. We cannot accept that.”

Culture is not easily defined, nor is there a consensus among scholars, philosophers and politicians (nor, probably, among the rest of us) as to what exactly the concept should include. Culture means all kinds of things. Culture can mean the arts collectively: art, music, literature, and related intellectual activities; knowledge and sophistication: enlightenment and sophistication acquired through education and exposure to the arts; shared beliefs and values of a group: the beliefs, customs, practices, and social behavior of a particular nation or people; shared attitudes: a particular set of attitudes that characterizes a group of people (Encarta English Dictionary, 2004)

We acquire culture, which is culture’s essential feature. Culture is based on the uniquely human capacity to classify experiences, encode such classifications symbolically, and teach such abstractions to others. It is usually acquired through enculturation, the process through which an older generation induces and compels a younger generation to reproduce the established lifestyle; consequently, culture is embedded in a person's way of life. Culture is difficult to quantify, because it frequently exists at an unconscious level, or at least tends to be so pervasive that it escapes everyday thought. This deeply-rooted element in our mind creates the major source of problems in communication. People of one culture tend to regard it as the most appropriate and are inclined to refuse to accept a different one, if not necessarily hostile.  As mediators, translators will have to accommodate always to bridge up such possible gaps and therefore ensure smooth communication. (for more details please see my article Accommodation in Translation at )


1.       Accommodate to target linguistic conventions.

a.      Not a word for a word 

Defined loosely, the word is the smallest unit of language that can be used by itself. (Bolnger and Sears, 1968: 43) Mona Baker defines the written word as any sequence of letters with an orthographic space on either side. (Baker, 1992: 11) In Chinese, the character instead of the word is used. Yet the above definitions apply just all right. Nevertheless, between English and Chinese differences are many and the shackles of a word for a word must be broken. To be more specific, the English word may be translated as a Chinese phrase and similarly a Chinese character may need an English phrase or sentence to express its meaning adequately and appropriately. For instance, duibuqi (three characters) can be translated into ‘Sorry” whereas ‘incredible’ and ‘ignorant’ are usually translated as bukesiyi and yumeiwuzhi respectively (Both are four-character phrases).  

b.       Accommodate to collocation in target language  

‘Why do builders not produce a building or authors not invent a novel, since they do invent stories and plots? No reasons as far as dictionary definitions of words are concerned. We don’t say it because we don’t say it.’ (Bolnger and Sears, 1968: 55) This is quite true in Chinese as well. We acquire them rather than learn them as in learning a foreign or second language. Most problems arise in translation owing to different collocations in different languages. For example, rules are broken in English but only weifan(violated or not abided by ) in Chinese. 

c.       Lexicalization with necessary annotation

By lexicalizaiton we mean to invent a new word or phrase for something that does not exit in the target language. The meaning may yet fail to be conveyed, so it is necessary for us to append an explanation immediately thereafter. For example, we Chinese do not have a habit to drink afternoon tea. Moreover tea is just tea and we drink only tea without eating any snacks. When I was invited to have afternoon tea by my English friend Andre, I was surprised to find I was offered biscuits and things. This posed a problem when I related the story to my students for I could not simply translate it as xiawucha (a literal translation). I had to explain. Morning tea similarly is quite different from zaocha in the Cantonese community.  

d.       Accommodate to target sentential structure  

One ancient foreigner recalled his experience in learning Chinese, saying that the Chinese do not have obvious formal connections between sentences and clauses. It is true especially in the ancient Chinese transcript which even do not have a punctuation system. Full stop is merely used to indicate the end of a sentence. Sometimes full stops are not seen. But we were taught to read that and it did not seem to matter to the people of that time. The modern Chinese adopted the western punctuation system but many features of the ancient times remain. The Chinese clauses are connected through meaning while English uses functional words to string them together. Another significant distinction is that English is subject-prominent while Chinese is topic-prominent.(Li, 1976) In Chinese-English translation, proper subjects must be identified for each clause for subjectless clause is grammatically wrong in English. In English-Chinese translations many subjects can be omitted and the clauses can be rearranged into a string of clause led by a general topic.  

e.       Accommodate to target textual tradition  

Here in this part I wish to stress the paramount importance of cohesion. Similar to Part d, the Chinese seldom use cohesive words to bring a text together, if any, especially in old transcript. Unlike Chinese, English has five cohesive devices according to Halliday and Hason (1976): reference, substitution, ellipsis, conjunction, and lexical cohesion. Though it can not be said that Chinese do not have similar cohesive devices there are not many at least. This becomes eminent stylistic differences of English and Chinese textual traditions. Very often it is this difference that betrays a piece of writing a translation, not an original written by a native. ( for more details please refer to my paper The Importance of Teaching Cohesion on the Textual Levelat ) The pair of terms ---parataxis (the juxtaposition of clauses or phrases without the use of coordinating or subordinating conjunctions) and hypotaxis (The dependent or subordinate relationship of clauses with connectives.) well depict such textual characteristics respectively between Chinese and English.   There has been an opinion that modern Chinese have been much influenced by the western languages through borrowing and simulation. It is one characteristic of the development of all languages, but such influence will never become the main stream. We, as translators, must be always aware of the above–mentioned differences. 

2.       Accommodate to target cultural acceptability.

a.       Accommodate to target cultural conventions  

As is discussed above, cultural conventions take roots in our mind. Cultures that are relatively homogeneous tend to see their own way of doing things as ‘naturally’, the only way, which just as naturally becomes the ‘best’ way when confronted with other ways. In addition, what is significant in one culture might lose all its significance in another. Take color for example. Red in China always implies happiness and is used a great deal on weddings and important festivals such as the Spring Festival. White is for funerals, though some parts in the south wear black with small white flowers nowadays, a western influence. Hongbaishiyin (literally red and black occasions) therefore ought to be translated as weddings and funerals since westerners may feel at a loss what on earth it is. This is where accommodation should be adopted. Another frequently quoted example is green-eyed or red-eyed. In English green-eyed is synonymous with jealous while in Chinese the same idea becomes yanhong (literally red-eyed). Dragon through Chinese history has been exclusively related to the emperor and royal family while it is depicted in English epics as a fierce animal to be killed by heroes. Thus the dragon hat should be translated as crown, the dragon chair the royal chair, the dragon gown the emperor’s gown, the dragon position the throne. Without such accommodation they might still be understood with initial explanation, but it causes trouble for easy and smooth comprehension.  

b.       Cultural substitution  

This strategy involves replacing a culture-specific item or expression with a target-language item which does not have the same propositional meaning but is likely to have a similar impact on the target reader. The main advantage of using this strategy is that it gives the reader a concept with which s/he can identify, something familiar and appealing. There have been criticism on this strategy in the Chinese translation circles by the ‘faithfulness school’, which argues with an accusation that it destroys the original image. Examples are plenty: whether ‘shedding crocodile tears’ or ‘The cat’s tears for the mouse’ (Chinese expression translated by myself) should be used; whether ‘kick down the ladder’ or ‘dismantle the bridge after crossing over the river’(Chinese expression translated by myself) ; whether ‘A rolling stone gathers no moss’ or ‘A running river does not stink and worms do not eat well-used doors and windows’; etc. The translator’s decision largely depends on the purpose of translation. Nord (2001) provides a pair of concepts that is of great help for us: documentary translation (preserve the original exoticizing setting) vs instrumental translation (adaptation of the setting to the target culture). Whether a translation ought to be instrumental or documentary when cultural and historical elements are involved is therefore the translator’s decision. If s/he focuses on the transmission of the original flavor for readers’ reference, documentary translation is preferred; if s/he mainly intends to convey the information for basic communication, instrumental translation is sufficient. Moreover if the purpose of a translation is to achieve a particular function for the target addressee, anything that obstructs the achievement of this purpose is a translation failure. Examples in translation of advertisement and other business areas provide the most convincing proof because the quality of your translation determines the sale of the products. If they are sold well in the target customers you deserve good pay.


From the above discussion, we may come to a natural conclusion. A dictionary may be of some necessity for translators, but far from enough. Without a strong consciousness of linguistic and cultural accommodation, one would never become a qualified and competent translator or interpreter.

Notes: This paper is written specially for my third-year students in the Department of Foreign Languages who have just selected the course---Translation Theory and Practice offered by me for two semesters.


1.     Baker, Mona: 1992. In other words: A Coursebook on Translation. Routledge Publishing House. UK
2.    Bolinger,D. and Sears, D.: 1981. Aspects of Language,New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
3.    Halliday, M.A.K. and Hasan, R.: 1976. Cohesion in English, London and New York: Longman.
4.    Li, C.N.: 1976. Subject and topic, London: Academic Press.
5.    Nord, Christiane: (2001) Translation As a Purposeful Activity-functionalist Approaches, Shanghai Foreign Education Press.
6.    Shi Aiwei: 2004. Accommodation in Translation.vol.8,
7.    Shi Aiwei: 2004. The Importance of Teaching Cohesion on the Textual Level. Vol.8,
8.    Encarta English dictionary, 2004.

Submit your article!

Read more articles - free!

Read sense of life articles!

E-mail this article to your colleague!

Need more translation jobs? Click here!

Translation agencies are welcome to register here - Free!

Freelance translators are welcome to register here - Free!

Free Newsletter

Subscribe to our free newsletter to receive news from us:

Recommend This Article
Read More Articles
Search Article Index
Read Sense of Life Articles
Submit Your Article
Obtain Translation Jobs
Visit Language Job Board
Post Your Translation Job!
Register Translation Agency
Submit Your Resume
Find Freelance Translators
Buy Database of Translators
Buy Database of Agencies
Obtain Blacklisted Agencies
Advertise Here
Use Free Translators
Use Free Dictionaries
Use Free Glossaries
Use Free Software
Vote in Polls for Translators
Read Testimonials
Read More Testimonials
Read Even More Testimonials
Read Yet More Testimonials
And More Testimonials!
Admire God's Creations

christianity portal
translation jobs


Copyright © 2003-2024 by
Legal Disclaimer
Site Map