Chartered Institute
of Linguists

Hints and pitfalls

The standard of a candidate’s work is assessed by breaking down the constituent elements that make up a professionally usable translation, i.e. how the candidate understands the source text (decoding) and renders this into the target language (encoding) in such a way that the text reads as if it had originally been written in the target language.


The main proof that a candidate has understood the source text is the accuracy of the translation, in which information from the source text is correctly transferred to the target text. Accuracy is therefore a crucial element in any translation. As comprehension of the source text is essential to how the text is encoded or translated into the target language, a text that has not been understood cannot be accurately translated.

Some causes of lapses in accuracy are:

  • inability to grasp the meaning of a whole sentence or paragraph and therefore resorting to literal translations
  • guessing at the meaning of words instead of consulting a dictionary
  • comprehension problems resulting in the mistranslation of individual words, concepts, idioms or technical terms
  • omitting sections of the translation (omission of more than 5% of the source text means an automatic fail, regardless of how good the remaining translation is)

To minimise the chances of inaccuracy, candidates need to make effective use of monolingual and bilingual dictionaries. Many candidates rely more on dictionaries than on their own personal resourcefulness to provide contextually appropriate translations. Dictionaries should not be treated as if they were authoritative or even definitive, as opposed to being tentative, approximate and provisional. In other words, although dictionaries play an important role, they must be only an aid to the process of translating.

Background knowledge and an understanding of the cultural context are vital to the translator, and these can be acquired over time through extensive reading in both the source and target languages. A lack of confidence in using anything other than basic decoding skills would produce unimaginative and pedantic translations that convey the letter but not the spirit of the original.

Understanding the cultural context helps candidates faced with a reference to coffee and tea breaks in the office, for example; in English, these imply morning and afternoon breaks respectively, but this convention may not carry over to other cultures. Another example is the French terms outre-Rhin and outre-Manche which should not be translated literally as “the other side of the Rhine/Channel” but understood as referring to Germany and Great Britain respectively from a French perspective.

Usage plays an important role in encoding. Candidates can generally use a simple test to establish whether or not to use one figure of speech or another in their translations. For instance, if a particular figure of speech would be unsuitable in a piece of writing in the target language, it may need to be replaced in the translation unless, of course, the intention was to convey some essential aspect of the original to the reader of the translation.

Candidates need to learn to stand back from their translations and to ask themselves if what they have written conveys what they want it to.


In order to obtain a pass in the translation examination, the encoding must respect the norms of the target language vis à vis sentence structure, terminology, cohesion of the text and fidelity to the author and his/her intention. Accuracy is a sine qua non in any translation. The need for accuracy at this level cannot be overstated: one major error or omission giving false information could have disastrous repercussions in a real-life situation. Once the meaning of the source language text has been decoded, the text needs to be encoded accurately.

The Diploma in Translation tests the ability to

  • convey the message accurately
  • convey the message appropriately
  • convey the message authentically
  • present the message acceptably
  • provide extra information if necessary

The seriousness of an error depends on the context and a given error can be serious in one context but minor in another. If a candidate’s script contains one fatal translation error or omission giving false information to the reader, the minimum professional standard has not been reached and, as a consequence, the candidate cannot be awarded a Pass.

Some of the criteria relating to accurate encoding of the text are the choice of register, vocabulary, terminology and idioms, which must be appropriate to the spirit of the original and must reflect the intention of the source text. In other words, if the source text is ‘for the educated lay-person’, ‘for an interested readership’ or ‘to appear in the business page of a popular newspaper’ or ‘in the science supplement of a quality broadsheet’, the translation must reflect who the target readership is, as well as the lexical and stylistic conventions of the target publication.

Resorting to over-literal translations or looking at individual words or sections in isolation might be detrimental to the overall quality of the translation produced, despite a correct use of specialised terminology. Therefore, in order to ensure that the target text reads like an authentic piece, it is extremely important that candidates read the whole source text before deciding on how to best render it into the target language.

Another aspect of performance that needs careful attention is that of grammar (morphology, syntax, etc), coherence of sentences, text cohesion and organisation of work. Adhering to the source text patterns not only fails to achieve the equivalent stylistic effect but can also result in factual error and confusion for the reader. For example, the verb tense in We are meeting in the boardroom next Saturday to express future tense has to be changed in order to render the same meaning into Polish (‘W przyszłą sobotę spotykamy się w sali konferencyjnej’).

Candidates should ensure that they pay adequate attention to spelling, punctuation and use of diacritics (accents) in the target language. Punctuation that follows the pattern of the source text, spelling errors, missing accents and neologisms can all distort the meaning of the target text. Spelling must be at a professionally usable level. Candidates should avoid the use of abbreviations or colloquial language such as “doesn’t”, “won’t” and “can’t” - unless, of course, this reflects the style of the source text.