Adequate and equivalent translation

Translation theorists have long disputed the interrelation of the two terms.26

V. Komissarov considers them to denote non-identical but closely related notions. He claims that adequate translation is broader in meaning than equivalent translation. Adequate translation is good translation, as it provides communication in full. Equivalent translation is the translation providing the semantic identity of the target and source texts.27 Two texts may be equivalent in meaning but not adequate, for example:

Никита грозил: «Покажу тебе кузькину мать.» – Nikita threatened , “I’ll put the fear of God into you!” The Russian sentence is low colloquial, whereas the English one, though it describes a similar situation, has another stylistic overtone, a rather pious one.

A. Shveitser refers the two terms to two aspects of translation: translation as result and translation as process. We can speak of equivalent translation when we characterize the end-point (result) of translation, as we compare whether the translated text corresponds to the source text. Adequacy characterizes the process of translation. The translator aims at choosing the dominant text function, decides what s/he can sacrifice.28 Thus, adequate translation is the translation corresponding to the communicative situation. For example, Здравствуйте, я ваша тетя! can be inadequate to Hello, I’m your aunt!, when the Russian sentence is used not in its phatic (i.e. contact supporting) function but in the expressive function (as an interjection) to express the speaker’s amazement.

Close to this understanding of translation adequacy is E. Nida’s concept of dynamic equivalence, “aimed at complete naturalness of expression” and trying “to relate the receptor to modes of behavior relevant within the context of his own culture.”29 Nida’s principle of dynamic equivalence is widely referred to as the principle of similar or equivalent response or effect.30

Y. Retsker states that the notion of adequate translation comprises that of equivalent31. According to him, an adequate target text describes the same reality as does the source text and at the same time it produces the same effect upon the receptor. Tr anslation adequacy is achieved by three types of regular co rrelations:

1) equivalents, that is regular translation forms not depending upon the context (they include geographical names, proper names, terms): the Pacific Ocean – Тихий океан, Chiang Kai-shek – Чан Кайши, hydrogen – водород.

2) analogs, or variable, contextual correspondence, when the target language possesses several words to express the same meaning of the source language word: soldier – солдат, рядовой, военнослужащий, военный.

3) transformations, or adequate substitutions: She cooks a hot meal in the evening. – На ужин она всегда готовит горячее.


It is a cardinal problem that is a cornerstone of the translation art and craft. The reasons for the lack of belief in achieving adequate translation have been expressed time and again. In trying to replace a message in one language with a message in another language, the translator loses some meaning, usually associative, either because s/he belongs to a different culture or because the receptor’s background knowledge does not coincide with that of the source text receptor (cultural overlap). Thus the transfer can never be total.38

There may be ‘referential’ loss and the translator’s language can only be approximate when describing an ethnic situation characterized by specifically local features: Americans, accustomed to Chinese cuisine and traditions, associate fortune cookie, served as a dessert in Chinese restaurants, with a thin folded wafer containing a prediction or proverb printed on a slip of paper. There are no such realia in Russia, so the translation can be only approximate, descriptive or analogous.

Reality is segmented differently by languages, which depends upon the environment, culture and other circumstances people live in. How can the translator make an African person, who does not know the beauty of the bright snowy morning, experience the same as Russians’ feelings when reading Pushkin’s immortal lines: Под голубыми небесами великолепными коврами, блестя на солнце, снег лежит…And, on the other hand, how to render in Russian or English the numerous shades of the white color in the speech of Northern people?

The loss of meaning may be attributed to the different language systems and structures. There is no category of noun gender in English, so the translation of the Russian sentence Студентка пришла by the English The student has come might be non-equal, since the English sentence is more generic and corresponds also to the Russian Студент пришел.

The loss of meaning can also be accounted for by idiosyncrasies, that is noncoincidence, of the individual uses of the speaker or text-writer and the translator. Peopleб speaking even the same languageб are apt to attach private meanings to some words. Hence various misunderstandings and communicative failures. (Can you guess what was meant in the sign written outside Hong Kong tailors shop? Ladies may have a fit upstairs. And what could the tourist understand from the advertisement for donkey rides in Thailand: Would you like to ride on your own ass?)39

Translators’ scepticism and pessimism came to be known in the Middle Ages. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) claimed that no poem can be translated without having its beauty and harmony spoilt. Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra (1547-1616) likened the works in translation to the wrong side of a Flemish tapestry: you can see only vague figures and cannot admire the bright colors of its right side.

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), a German philologist and translator, stressed that “no word in one language is completely equivalent to a word in another language”, and that “each language expresses a concept in a slightly different manner, with such and such a denotation, and each language places it on a rung that is higher or lower on the ladder of feeling.”40

No matter what reasons might be given by theorists, translation practice has been proving that this concept is groundless. Translators have always attempted to be not just a “window open on another world” but rather “a channel opened”, through which foreign influences can penetrate the native culture, challenge it, and influence it.41 So the concept of untranslatability is not shared by practical translators who help people of various countries to communicate.

Though sceptical and negative, the concept played its positive role in the history of translation. It has caused scholars to ponder over language and culture discrepancies and to give up the idea of one language mechanically overlapping another one to convey the message.

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