Translating the Social Sciences: Country-based challenges

Translating presents countless challenges and difficulties. But translators specializing in a particular field or topic often face additional issues and concerns. Translation of the social sciences, which encompass such academic fields as anthropology, economics, linguistics, psychology and sociology, is a clear example of this. Academic articles related to the social sciences may be quite challenging, even for translators who are supposedly “experts” in the field. Certain issues should be considered when attempting to provide quality translations for these academic works.

Most social science articles to be translated are intended for publication in scholarly journals, in an attempt to ensure worldwide diffusion. So as a translator, it is useful to know the journal/s to which the work will be submitted. This will help you to determine which version of English should be used, as well as certain style issues (reference formatting, text style, etc.). Translating into either US or British English involves more than simply running a spell check in one version or the other. Often, completely different terms are used to describe the same thing, depending on the country at hand.

Translating the Social Sciences from English into Spanish and vice-versa

For example, let’s consider the field of education. Here, significant country-based language differences abound. So, it is necessary to consider the potential article reader in order to provide an appropriate translation. For example, Spanish authors frequently refer to “estudios secundarios”, which in English, translates literally into “secondary studies”. This term will be understood with no problem by UK readers. For US readers, however, “secondary school” is not typically used, with the terms “junior high, middle school or high school” being more common for this age group.

And then there is the Spanish term “notas” which in UK English is translated as “marks” but in the US is referred to as “grades”. For Brits, a “grade” refers to the overall level of course achievement, usually determined by combining the course’s “marks”. Confused yet? Probably, and if not, you will be, when attempting to translate works discussing grading systems that are completely different, as is the case with the Spanish, US and UK systems. In the UK, the university grading system is based on “Honours” levels, letters and percentages. In the US, however, there is a long history of using GPAs (grade point averages) which range from 0.0 to 4.0 points. In Spain, a 10-point system is used. All of this must be taken into consideration when translating works related to education, so as to ensure that readers will correctly understand a grading system which, most likely, has little in common with their own.

And education isn’t the only field in which these issues and challenges occur. In other fields of the social sciences, country-based confusion can also arise when seeking a suitable translation. When translating an article related to the elderly, the Spanish term “residencia de ancianos” is commonly used to describe residential housing for older individuals. So when translating for UK English readers, it would be appropriate to use the phrase “care homes”. American readers, however, would be unlikely to recognize this term, since here, these facilities are called “nursing” or “retirement” homes. And this shouldn’t be confused with “sheltered housing” which in the UK refers to rented housing made available to needing elderly or disabled individuals. There is even “extra care sheltered housing” which provides additional access and mobility for the elderly, including care services. In American English, this is similar to the so-called “assisted living” but an exact match is unavailable, given the differences in US and British housing and elderly care systems. So, once again, depending on the intended reader, word choice must be considered thoughtfully to ensure that the meaning of the text isn’t lost in translation. Often, translators will need to act almost as researchers in order to make sure that accurate translations of academic texts are provided, especially when dealing with country-specific differences.

About Jennifer Benavides

Jennifer Benavides is a Cuban-American translator who has lived half of her life in the US and the other half in Spain. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Maryland and Psychology PhD studies from Cornell University. She has worked as a Spanish to English freelance translator since 2008.

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