Communication is at the heart of everything


Eloquence. Clarity. Style.

Translation equivalency and effective foreign communications


Communication is the primary component in doing any business, especially international.  That considered, the success of any international company depends on how well its message is communicated across borders and languages to its employees, partners, clients or customers.  High-quality translations are therefore of paramount importance.

This article makes an attempt at defining high-quality translations and provides recommendations for clients of translation service companies to make sure that their communications in a foreign language are effective by utilizing certain methods and tools before, after and during the translation project.

From the business point of view, achieving high-quality translations means finding professional linguists/translators/subject matter experts, etc. and organizing the translation process itself.

From the linguistics point of view, a high-quality translation means achieving a high degree of equivalence between the original text and the translated text.

Five levels of translation equivalence

But what is equivalence and how do we measure it?  Is it a literal, word for word translation of the original message?  Is it a translation of the concept behind the original message?  How do we find the proper equilibrium between words, ideas, culture, context, and experience to impact the recipient of the translated text equivalently?

Translation Studies is relatively new as a formal academic discipline, first proposed in Russia in 1958, at Moscow’s Second Congress of Slavists.  Since then, the topic of translation equivalence has been vigorously debated.

One widely respected method in Russia was introduced by Pr. Vilen Komissarov, a prominent Russian linguist, and authority on translation theory and translator training, from the Moscow State Linguistics University.

Below is my summation of his five levels of equivalence between original and translated texts, as proposed by Pr. Komissarov in his book from 1973, “A word on translation.”

1)    At the first level, we achieve the equivalence only in relation to the purpose of the communication by translating the idea behind the words.  Everything we say has a purpose.  We use words to describe something, state facts, establish contact, express emotions, prompt an action or a reaction from the recipient, etc.  Sometimes we can translate a sentence word for word, and on this level it will be equivalent to the original.  However, it may not achieve the purpose of the communication, or even seem meaningless to the recipient.  English phrases like, “Perhaps there is simply some bad chemistry between them,” or “She had her nose in the air,” are nonsensical when translated literally into many languages.  In such cases, the translator needs to translate the idea behind the message to achieve the equivalence.

2)   At the second level, we achieve equivalence both in relation to the purpose of the communication and the extralinguistic context or situation.  Any text contains information about something related to some real or imaginary context.  However, this context is often very complex and is usually related to the culture and experiences of the people involved in the communication.  The same situation can be described in many different ways, and sometimes people of a certain culture have a preferred way of describing a particular situation.  For example, “We locked the door to keep thieves out” would sound absurd translated word for word into Russian, as in Russian one says, “We locked the door as not to let thieves in.”  Or, instead of saying “Wet paint,” Russians say, “Be careful! It’s painted.”  

Every language also has its realia, or words and expressions so culture-specific that they can require an explanation to provide the context necessary for achieving the purpose of the communication.

3)    At the third level equivalence is achieved in the method used to describe the situation, in addition to the purpose of the communication and extralinguistic context.  In this case, the situation is described using the same attributes and concepts.  At this level, however, we still might not achieve the lexical (word-for-word) equivalence or the syntactical (grammatical) equivalence.  For example, we can translate the sentence “Because of scrubbing the floors my mood worsens,” as “Scrubbing makes me cranky.”  We change the grammatical structure, we change the word choice, but we leave the cause and effect relationship, and the concepts stay the same.

4)    At the fourth level, along with the first three components of the content, we also achieve equivalence in the syntactical (grammatical) structure of the original text.  The total number of sentences is the same.  Correlated sentences are of the same type, have the same location in the text, and order of main and subordinate clauses.  A simple example would be, “Apparently, he was very interested in math,” and the translation, “Seemingly, he was very interested in math.”  The sentence structure is the same; the words are slightly different.

5)    The fifth level of equivalence is characterized by the maximal degree of proximity between original and translation.  Finally, added to all above, is the greatest possible achieved equivalence at the lexical (word) level.  Individual words, as the main units of language, contain much information, and sometimes it’s not possible to relay all this information with the nearest “equivalent” word of a foreign language.  For example, there is only one word in Russian, which serves as a translation for both butter and oil, so unless we specify we may lose or add meaning and lessen equivalence.

The communication is only effective when the recipient gets the same message the speaker intended to send.  Any message is comprised of words having certain cultural meanings, organized in a definite way, describing an established context, and having a precise purpose for communicating it.

Factors that predetermine equivalence

As with any project, we define the results we want to achieve before its beginning.  Thus, any translation starts with analyzing the source text.  It’s necessary to stress that if the source text is ineffective, translation will not improve it, and the target text will be equivalently ineffective.

In addition to determining the target audience of the text (their age, professional background, etc.), it is important to understand the type of text it is, e.g., is it a technical document or an advertising campaign?  Different types of texts and their target audience will also, to a certain extent, predetermine which level(s) of equivalence might be employed.  In certain cases, it is better to strive for the maximal degree of proximity on all levels of the text (legal and technical documents), in others, it is better to start with the purpose of the communication and try to achieve the highest equivalence at this level (advertising materials).

Only a professional translator can recognize all of these challenges and embrace them, ably serving as the link between different languages, cultures, people, and minds.

How a client can ensure equivalence


For the business executive, choosing the proper translation company, and thereby positively affecting the degree of equivalency, can be difficult.  Using Komissarov’s method outlined above, however, that executive may begin a dialogue with a translation company representative on the subject of equivalency, and how to achieve it, which should lead to consideration of the translation process, and in particular, the system of checks and balances employed. 

Here we are primarily speaking of the quantity of translators and linguists, etc. checking and rechecking the text, and then the quality of these same people.  If asked, a translation company should be able to provide some information regarding their people’s educational background, experience in translation, command of languages, experience living in the countries whose languages they both translate into and from, specialized knowledge of different industries, and whether they are members of any professional associations.

For most business people, this type of common sense approach in choosing a company before the work begins represents the bulk of what must be done to attain high enough equivalency.  Talk to as many companies as possible, ask, even a few, good questions and based on the answers, decide who seems competent and trustworthy.


Once a contract has been signed, and the work has begun, in the “during” stage of a project, most executives will want to trust their own decision and the company they chose.  I’m reluctant to challenge the wisdom that one hires the best and then gives them room to work, especially under deadline.

If one does want, however, to be more involved in the process, begin by providing quality glossaries and your company’s previous translations, to assure consistency with your brand and message.  Then, you may want to hire a third-party linguist to review the documents, or even employ two separate teams of translators and proofreaders and have their work compared and reconciled by a third team.  No two translations are the same, and their differences do not necessarily equate to mistakes.  Another tool that you have to ensure equivalency is back translation when the translated text is translated back into the source language and again evaluated for discrepancies. 


When clarity and equivalence are of utmost importance, companies perform cognitive debriefing analysis of the final version of the translated text, during which 5 or more representatives from the foreign target audience are interviewed, to determine whether the intended effect was achieved.  In the case of ambiguities, the text with comments from the respondents is sent back to the linguist for revision. Ideally, this is the best way to assess equivalency and equivalent impact.  Of course, this analysis requires additional time and resources.


The degree of equivalence between the original text and the translated text defines high-quality translations.  Linguistically, equivalence between the texts can be achieved at, at least, five different levels.  As a client hiring translation service providers and desiring translation equivalence, one can employ certain methods before, during, and after the translation process to assure yourself of its equivalency.

If you ever feel like your message isn't getting through, reach out and talk to a professional, who can look at your various materials and offer an analysis.  Don't let misunderstandings between languages and cultures be the cause of suboptimal business performance.