Stretching your brain — the challenge of translation

Translation is the language of Europe 

Umberto Eco

Translators — unlike interpreters — work on written texts. Those who achieve the most natural and fluent results translate from a foreign language into their best language (usually — but not always — their mother tongue). But what exactly does translation involve?

Conveying a message

The question all translators have to ask themselves is: 'How can I get the message across?' A good translation should have the same impact on the reader as the original text.

If the original made you smile or piqued your curiosity, so should the translation. This means that the translator’s understanding must go beyond individual words, grammar and structure. He or she must fully grasp the author’s underlying message. Good translators have a feel for context, style and fine nuances of meaning.

Different types of knowledge

Translating a text about electronics or medicine, for example, calls for technical knowledge. Recreating a rhyme or a pun, on the other hand, requires understanding of 2 cultures and an appreciation of stylistic factors.

Adapting a text to a new setting

Every language is rooted in a specific cultural, social and geographical setting. Accordingly, translators sometimes have to coin new words for terms with no equivalent in their own language. Moreover, texts that are very specific to a particular culture have to be adapted to make them accessible to people from another culture or geographical area. This is called localisation.

Living language

Words and expressions change rapidly. New ideas and inventions, plus new uses for existing terms, force translators to create new ways of expressing these concepts in their own language. This is one of the most challenging — and fascinating — aspects of translation.

Remember that looking up a word in a dictionary is only a first step. The context in which a word is used may well lead you to choose a different term entirely.

Fancy giving it a go?

We want to give you a taste of working like a professional translator. We will be judging you on:

  • the accuracy of your text
  • your ability to use terms correctly
  • your ability to write fluently in your chosen language i.e. the general readability of your translation
  • the creativity of your solutions.

Some examples from earlier contests

To help you prepare, here are some examples from previous contests:


The French text for 2011 contained quite a tough challenge — translating a rhyme. A few successful solutions in different languages are given here:

The English text for 2008 refers to 2 dialects of English, cockney and Geordie. How might we translate these names into other languages? Can our non-English readers be expected to know what they are?

We have 3 options here:

  • If we think 'Cockney and Geordie' will be fairly familiar to our readers, we can keep them as they are.
  • We could also add a short explanation: 'Cockney and Geordie — dialects spoken in London and north-eastern England'.
  • Alternatively, we could even replace 'Cockney and Geordie' by 2 dialects in our own language (e.g. 'Bayrisch und Sächsisch' in German).

A similar example can be found in the 2013 Spanish text, where the word 'manchegos' is used. If there is no equivalent noun in the translator’s own language, the expression will have to be replaced by an explanation — here, 'people from La Mancha'.

However, translation always involves the risk of failing to see the wood for the trees. You may find yourself making a huge effort to create a rhyme or convey an idiomatic expression — but you must also consider what works best in the context. For instance, what is the right register? Is it appropriate to use slang, or archaic language, or jargon? Striking exactly the right balance is very tricky.

Translations that demonstrate fluency throughout the text have often been picked as winners over the years — so it’s important to keep stylistic balance in mind. The eternal question is how to stay true to the original and at the same time write fluently and idiomatically in the target language.

Pre-selecting students

Since only 5 students per school can take part in the competition, schools may opt to hold their own pre-selection tests. Others decide to pick one student for each foreign language taught in the school.

Some handy hints

Students translating into their native or strongest language will always have a big advantage over those who attempt to translate into a foreign language. To write really well in the target language, you need the skills of a well-educated native speaker of that language.

Good writing is paramount — so it could be useful for the teachers of the mother tongue to work together with the foreign language teachers to prepare students for the contest.

Don’t forget that students of Latin and ancient Greek may be able to transfer their translation skills to modern languages!