Translation is the interpretation of the meaning of a text in one language (the "source text") and the production, in another language, of an equivalent text (the "target text," or "translation") that communicates the same message.
Translation must take into account a number of constraints, including context, the rules of grammar of the two languages, their writing conventions, their idioms and the like. Consequently, as has been recognized at least since the time of the translator Martin Luther, one translates best into the language that one knows best (or ones mother/native language).
Traditionally translation has been a human activity, though attempts have been and are being made to computerize or otherwise automate the translation of natural-language texts (machine translation) or to use computers as an aid to translation (computer-assisted translation).
Perhaps the most common misconception about translation is that there exists a simple "word-for-word" relation between any two languages, and that translation is therefore a straightforward and mechanical process. On the contrary, historical differences between languages often dictate differences of expression. Hence, source and target texts may differ significantly in length.
There has been debate as to whether translation is an art or a craft. We believe it is both. On one hand, translation is an art, though one that is teachable. On the other hand, translators, mostly those who work on technical, business or legal documents, regard their profession as a craft one that can not only be taught, but that is subject to linguistic analysis and that benefits from academic study.
Most translators will agree that the situation depends on the nature of the text being translated. A simple document, e.g. a product brochure, can often be translated quickly, using techniques familiar to an experienced translator. By contrast, a newspaper editorial, a political speech, a research paper/report or a book on almost any subject will require not only the craft of good language skills and research technique, but a substantial knowledge of the subject matter, a cultural sensitivity, and a mastery of the art of good writing.
The translation process can be described as:
1. Decoding the meaning of the source text; and
2. Re-encoding this meaning in the target language.
To decode the meaning of a text, the translator must first identify its component "translation units," that is to say, the segments of the text to be treated as a cognitive unit. A translation unit may be a word, a phrase or even one or more sentences. Behind this seemingly simple procedure lies a complex cognitive operation. To decode the complete meaning of the source text, the translator must consciously and methodically interpret and analyze all its features. This process requires thorough knowledge of the grammar, semantics, syntax, idioms, and the like, of the source language, as well as the culture of its speakers.
The translator needs the same in-depth knowledge to re-encode the meaning in the target language. In fact, in general, translators' knowledge of the target language is more important, and needs to be deeper, than their knowledge of the source language. For this reason, most translators translate into a language of which they are native speakers.
In addition, knowledge of the subject matter under discussion is essential.
In recent years, studies in cognitive linguistics have provided valuable insights into the cognitive process of translation.