“It depends on the context”

If there was an award for the most repeated phrase in the world of translation, it would definitely go to the sentence “it depends on the context”. No translator is free from the guilt of uttering these cliché words to their fellow conversationalists who turn to them for linguistic guidance. Be warned: whenever you ask a translator about the meaning of a term, the answer you get will remain unaltered unless you provide him or her with contextual information. The classic course of the conversation would be along the lines of:

it depends on the context

Your translator will always answer you with: “it depends on the context”.

Asker: “what does “knock” mean?”

Translator: “it depends on the context.” 

Asker: “do you know the meaning of “set”?”

Translator: “it can mean to establish or decide or to fix something, depending on the context.”

 The importance of the context

No matter how repetitive these words appear to be, they still constitute the most truthful answer a translator can give you. The interpretation of some words, such as “knock” and “set”, is highly context-dependent. If he or she was to answer with: “knock” means “to collide with something”, the definition would not be suitable in the phrase “the knock on him was that he couldn’t handle the pressure”. The correct definition would have been “harsh or petty criticism”. Contextual integration is therefore essential to achieve a reliable definition. In fact, most English words are highly ambiguous and sometimes semantically unrelated (e.g., watch: a time piece, to look; rose: a flower, past tense of rise). The meaning is therefore predicated on the linguistic context or the situational context. Words in one phrase are not present in isolation; their interaction with other words in their environment is what truly governs their meaning.

In order to achieve an effective translation, the translator must be able to decontextualize the source text and recontextualize it in the form of a target text. Machine translation and free language services on the internet are still defective because of their inability to identify the context. This is the differentiating factor between human translation and machine translation and a clear illustration of the importance of the context.

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