It’s often said that translation is more of an art than a science.
As a basic example of this, we can look at a newspaper article. The structure of a newspaper article or any journalistic article is very precise: You have the headline, you have the lead, then you have background and statements, and finally a summation. It’s very organised and very predictable. As a result, you can recognize something written in a journalistic style very quickly.
Other structural types abound: Stream of consciousness writing, formal business writing with the abstract and firm heading structure – even casual or informal writing often has a definite structure. A personal letter, for example, has the salutation, the greeting, the body, and the farewell paragraph. In fact, it’s not outlandish to say that every single written piece in history can be defined by its structure, and structure contributes to its meaning. On the extreme side are legal documents, where not only is word choice extremely particular, but the very structure of the document often contributes to its interpretation.
As a result, when translating a document you must not only have a firm grasp of the two languages involved, you must also comprehend the structure of the source and its implications. This is where experience and cultural familiarity become essential to a professional translator. First and foremost, you must recognize the structure – the key to this is understanding that every document has a structure, and it is up to you to see it. Once you see the structure, the key then is to understand how the structure serves the meaning of the document. Only after you have figured this aspect out can you proceed to the actual work of translation.
The next challenge is determining whether the structure used in the source can be preserved in the target language or whether it must be adjusted. Two things are determining factors here: One, whether the structure used is formal and perhaps international, or whether it is unique to the document or author. Second, whether the structure conveys the same meaning in both cultures. This is not always obvious, and requires deep familiarity with both.