Translation and Adaptation

When communicating a message to a listener or reader whose mother tongue is not the same as our own, especially when that person does not even understand the language, we must use different ways or methods to get the message across as clearly as possible. While we can use gestures, signs, or noises in order to make ourselves understood, when communicating something written, we must turn to translators.

One of the tools used in translation is adaptation. It is used in many cases, as cultural differences between different speakers can cause confusion that can sometimes be tricky to understand or simply prevent us from understanding each other. Adaptation is not to be confused with localization, however, which is used when the target audience speaks a different variant of the same language, such as in the case of Latin America. When adapting a message, we are not translating it literally. This does not mean, however, that when adapting a message or idea we are being unfaithful to the original message, or that we are not doing our job well (translating). Simply, there are situations in which it is required. British scholar Peter Newmark defines adaptation, taken from Vinay and Darbelnet, as, “The use of a recognized equivalent between two situations. It is a process of cultural equivalence: Dear Sir/Muy señor mío; Yours faithfully/Le saluda atentamente.”

Adaptations, also known as “Free Translations” are when the translator substitutes cultural realities or scenarios for which there is no reference in the target language. A simple example would be translating “Friday 13th” from English into Spanish. In this case we would need to adapt the translation to the cultural reality of the Spanish-speaking world and translate it as “Martes 13” (Tuesday the 13th). Adaptations are equivalents, and can be seen more clearly in the translations of TV shows or movies, where conversations or cultural references must be adapted for foreign audiences.

When comparing translation and adaptation, we are comparing two ways of communicating a message. In many cases it is impossible to translate a text without making an adaptation, as a “literal” translation of the message would cause a loss of all or part of the meaning for the target audience. It is important to know when to adapt a message when an expression might have a more appropriate equivalent for a given situation. This makes us better translation professionals.