This material first appeared as a guest post on the NOTIS blog at https://www.notisnet.org/Blog/5012686. Published with permission and additions from the author.
By Viktor Slepovitch, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Department Chair, Department of Business English, Belarus State Economic University (Minsk, Belarus)
In the process of reading a translated text in this or that specific area of studies, one normally does not focus on the fact that the text being read is a translation. The reader’s attention is in fact drawn to the subject-matter of the text. What might possibly make us aware that we are dealing with a translation is a multitude of translation faux pas. The best way to avoid them is to adequately understand the situational subject-matter and the context, which in fact is an essential part of a translator’s competency and professionalism.
Situational subject-matter includes the persons, objects and phenomena found in the text, as well as the relationships between them. According to translation and interpretation scholar E. Breus, the same extralinguistic situation can be perceived and described differently in different languages.  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.
The situational subject-matter awareness is vital for understanding what the original text is about. To illustrate this statement, the following examples are quite appropriate:
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, which would be a word-for-word translation, but the number of books held.) 
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 split into two words by the translator: band (a musical group, as in jazz band) and aid (assistance).
The context, however, made it clear that the rock musicians considered it their mission to provide emergency aid for the needy—just like a Band-Aid is used for emergency purposes, e.g., when a person accidentally cuts his/her finger. 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?) instead of 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.
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. Russia’s 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. 
Summarizing the reasons for failing to understand the situational subject-matter of an utterance, it is possible to identify the following ones:
- Copying a grammar/lexical structure of a sentence without taking the trouble to analyze its implication (e.g.: Don’t cross the bridge until you come to it – is NOT Не говори гоп, пока не перескочишь, but Будем решать проблемы по мере их поступления).
- Misunderstanding the flow of an utterance which results in unacceptable splitting of set expressions, and consequently – in the wrong translation, as in the above example of Band-Aid generation.
- Lack of knowledge of professional jargons and idioms, which makes it hard to convey the meaning – in the field of business, in particular. The following examples are vivid enough illustrate this statement:
- The proposal went over big with big business (to go over big – to succeed, to be approved of)
- Let’s deal him in and give him a piece of the cake (to deal smb in – to include smb in an activity or business; to give smb a piece of cake – to share or divide profits with another person.
- The business is slack, and our sales level hardly reaches the break-even point (a point at which sales cover costs but do not show profits) .
All the above means that situational subject-matter awareness — as an important translation issue — should be considered as an indispensable skill in translation and interpretation, alongside with such skills as:
- discerning narrow and broad contexts;
- understanding realia and realities, as well as culture-bound objects;
- being competent in the terminology of the text’s content or field of studies and research;
- recognizing the dangers of carbon-paper (word-for-word) translation;
- observing the norms of the target language.
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