Situational subject-matter awareness in translation

08/04/2017 13:30 | Shelley Fairweather-Vega (Administrator)

NOTIS is pleased to present a guest blog post by translator Viktor Slepovitch. Examples given are in Russian, but we hope the topic will be useful to everyone.

Viktor Slepovitch is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Business English at Belarus State Economic University (Minsk, Belarus). He obtained his Ph.D. in Linguistics from Minsk State Linguistic University, was a Fulbright visiting scholar at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), and won the Chevening award presented by St. Mary College, Twickenham, London. Viktor has also been a guest lecturer at California State University (Bakersfield). He is Principal Consultant for Washington Translation Bureau, a NOTIS corporate member.

The role of situational subject-matter awareness in translation

When reading a professionally translated text, we do not focus on the fact that it is a translation—instead, our attention is drawn to the subject matter of the text. What might make us aware we are dealing with a translation is a multitude of translation faux pas. The best way to avoid those is situational subject-matter awareness, and contextual awareness, which I would argue is a part of a translator’s competency and professionalism.

Situational subject-matter is the persons, objects and phenomena found in the text, as well as the relationships between them. Translation scholar E. Breus states that the same extralinguistic situation can be perceived and described differently in different languages [1]. Clearly, without situational subject-matter awareness, a translator is not able to produce an adequate translation and fully convey the message meant by the author in the source language.

Here are two examples in which situational subject-matter awareness is vital for understanding what the original text is about.

ENGLISH – RUSSIAN: Why is it that smokers always head out coatless, no matter what the weather? (Head out – выходят из здания на улицу = are leaving the building rather than стремятся выйти or направляются = are trying to leave or are headed for.)

RUSSIAN – ENGLISH: Библиотечный фонд университета составляет полтора миллиона экземпляров книг. (Библиотечный фонд is not the library fund, but the number of books held.) [2], [3].

Without situational subject-matter awareness the wrong translation is unavoidable. In a TV program about rock musicians of the 1980s who arranged concerts for charity, it was said that the musicians called themselves representatives of the Band Aid generation. According to Wikipedia, the term originated from a charity super-group featuring mainly British and Irish musicians founded in 1984 to raise money for anti-famine efforts in Ethiopia by releasing the song “Do they know it’s Christmas?”.

The translation of this phrase into Russian came out as поколение групповой помощи (literally “the generation of group assistance”), which was not correct. The word Band-Aid (originally meaning a brand of an adhesive bandage) was understood as split into two words: band (a musical group) and aid (assistance). The context, however, also made it clear that the musicians considered it their mission to provide emergency aid for the needy—just like a Band-Aid is used for emergency purposes. The translator should have used a metaphorical expression, but the major challenge was to understand the situational subject-matter for the purpose of conveying the meaning in Russian.

The context is what makes it easier to understand the situational subject-matter and produce the correct translation, taking into account what and how they say/write in this or that situation in the target (Russian) language.

  • When watching American movies, Russian-speaking viewers fluent in English are quite often able to notice incorrect translations of English phrases. For instance, in a telephone conversation, the question Are you there? should be rendered in Russian as Ты меня слышишь? (literally Can you hear me?) rather than the more word-for-word Ты там?
  • As a rule, the meaning of the word becomes clear as soon as it is placed in a sentence, which serves as a narrow context:
  • ENGLISH – RUSSIAN: The settlements between companies were made without delay. – Расчеты (not урегулирование, поселения, etc.) между компаниями были произведены без задержки.
  • RUSSIAN – ENGLISH: Нам было предложено оценить его работу. – They suggested that we evaluate (not appreciate, estimate, etc.) his work.
  • But in other cases, to understand the situational subject-matter and the meaning of the word or a phrase, a broad context is needed. It may include several sentences, a paragraph, or even the text of the whole article or video, as was the case with the Band Aid generation.
All this means that situational subject-matter awareness—as an important translation issue—should be considered an indispensable skill in interpreting and translation, alongside skills such as discerning narrow and broad contexts, awareness of realia and culture-bound objects, competence in terms of the text’s content or field, recognizing the dangers of carbon paper (word-for-word) translation, and observing the norms of the target language.

That said, a translator should not overdo it by trying to produce a special effect in the process of translation. The following example seems to be a good illustration of this statement.

In May 1995, an American was interpreting during the meeting between Clinton and Yeltsin in the USA. Russias President sarcastically said, “Вот вы, журналисты, предрекали провал. На самом деле это вы провалились”. This is what the interpreter said: “You, journalists, said it would be a disaster. In fact, you are a disaster.” (Clinton is laughing.)

Perhaps in that situation it would have been more appropriate to use the verb to fail: “You journalists predicted failure. In fact, it’s you who have failed.” The word disaster was too strong, and was surely a case of the interpreter “overdoing” the interpretation [4].


  • 1.      Бреус, Е.И. Основы теории и практики перевода с русского языка на английский [“Fundamental theory and practice of Russian to English translation”]. Moscow: URAO, 1998.
  • 2.      Слепович, В.С. Перевод (английский – русский): учебник [“Translation (English - Russian: Textbook”]. Minsk: Tetralit, 2014.
  • 3.      Слепович, В.С. Настольная книга переводчика с русского языка на английский = Russian-English Translation Handbook. Minsk: Tetralit, 2013.
  • 4.      Чужакин, А.П., Палажченко, П.Р. Мир перевода-1. Introduction to Interpreting XXI. – Moscow, 2008. Available online:

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