Translating Language Dialects

The word “dialect” is typically used in reference to a variation of a language used by a select group of speakers. Before we go into issues relevant to translating dialects, here are some characteristics to help you identify a dialect:

  1. shows variations in grammar
  2. shows variations in vocabulary
  3. shows variations in prosody
  4. shows variations in usage patterns
  5. likely will not have its own written literature
  6. likely will not be specific to a state or nation of its own
  7. likely specific to a region
  8. possibly specific to the social class of speakers

Please note that not all of these criteria need to be met. These are just some of the most common attributes related to what linguists refer to as dialects.

What does this mean for translation?

When you translate something for a specific country, you would typically choose the official language of that country. Each country may have multiple dialects of a given language, but the official variant would usually be a common denominator. In other words, even speakers of another dialect of the same language would usually be fluent in the official version as well and readily accept translations into the standard dialect.

But what do you do when the official language is a dialect of a language with much broader coverage. Examples are British English vs. American English, or Canadian French vs. Parisian French. German for Germany, Switzerland, or Austria. Or Spanish for any one of the many Spanish-speaking countries that each lay claim to specific variations of the language.

As so often, it depends…

  1. …on your budget: Translation can be a sizable chunk of your marketing budget. It makes a difference whether you translate into one French or two, one Spanish or two or four or ten.
  2. …on the source text: Highly technical texts such as pharmaceutical product information, patent specifications, or scientific papers are unlikely to differ much from dialect to dialect. Texts written in a casual tone about everyday topics, however, would probably use words, idioms, or style that are specific to the region.
  3. …on the target regions: the difference between written Spanish for Chile and Peru is likely negligible, but both may have usages that are different enough from e.g. Mexican Spanish or U.S. Spanish to warrant some adaptation (see b).
  4. …on your goals: Are you just trying to get basic information across, or do you want to connect with local end consumers? In the first case, it may be perfectly acceptable to send High German texts to Switzerland. But if you want to appear Canadian, you would want to make sure to not use expressions that are obviously Parisian.

In many cases of dialect variations, it may be sufficient to *edit* a translation in order to adapt it for a different dialect region. Let’s say you have a 100-page Spanish document that you want to use in the U.S. and in Britain. It would be quite uneconomical to go through the full translation steps twice. In most cases, you’d probably translate into one of the dialects and then have another translator go through to make necessary adjustments to spelling or verbiage.

A little aside on translation workflow here:

If your translators work with a translation memory tool (which they probably should), then the dialect adaptation should also be completed in the tool. Do not have someone just mark up a PDF and change the output document. Why not? If your original source document changes, you would want to rely on the translation memory tool to repopulate all translations that are unaffected. And you would want to have this option for all target dialects at once. Talk to us before you make costly mistakes by taking what seems to be a shortcut.

Translating Dialects

Before you adapt a text for a dialect, it makes sense to have a careful look. Doing so may be altogether unnecessary in some cases. In other cases, it may not only be appropriate but even required. If you know people on the ground, show them a translation sample and ask them whether it is acceptable for their region. Or come to us for a linguistic analysis. Our in-country translators can not only perform the task of dialect adaptation – they can also provide you with a prior report on the necessity or utility of doing so.

Written by Tim Kaney and Philipp Strazny

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