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Translating ‘Standard’

Translating ‘Standard’ 

“Standard” is a tough word to translate. It means so many different things in English, and other languages, that translators often make mistakes when trying to understand it. In the first place, its meaning as a noun is often quite different from its use as an adjective. For example, a “technical standard” is a minimum specification which all manufacturers are expected to comply with. So when translating this ‘standard’ the result is:

  • FR: norme
  • DE: Norm
  • ES: norma
    … etc.

As such, we have ISO, the “International Standardization Organisation” and CEN, the “Comité Européenne de Normalisation“. Sometimes we do see “normalisation” in English, and we understand that this is generally a bad translation from another European language.

The verb “standardise” means to apply a standard or standards to one or more products or services. It may also mean to make a series of products or services homogeneous and consistent, without any formal standard being invoked, as in “We have standardised our export procedures”.

In use

In the plural, “standards” can mean ethical or moral values, as in “standards are slipping”. We see the same meaning in “double standards”. Yet a “standard of living” is a “nivel de vida” (ES: Spanish) which directly translates as a “level of living”. And in the armed forces a “standard” is an ensign or flag.

In French, however, “le standard” is both a telephone exchange and a benchmark.

So far, so good! The real problems come with the adjectival use. The usual meaning is “normal, default, usual”, as in “Standard response sprinklers”. I once saw this mistranslated in Italian as “risposta normalizzata” (instead of “normale”), which implies that this response is in accordance with the standard, and therefore the only possible response.

Standard deviation in statistics in French is “écart-type”, just as a “standard floor” would be “planta tipo” in Spanish. But Spanish can use either desviación tipo or an anglicism for the former: desviación estándar, which is the standard (usual, conventional) Spanish spelling for the way speakers of standard (literary, educated) Spanish pronounce the standard (unexceptional) English word “standard”.

A standard accent is a neutral (a euphemism for socially prestigious) accent.

Standard accessories are those which are included in the price, not as optional extras, which would be “de serie” in Spanish. And colloqial British “bog-standard” is merely average, no frills.

With so many different meanings, when translating ‘standard’, the best advice for translators is to first, do your research! Make sure you understand exactly what the text is referring to. In the case of technical terms, there will almost certainly be an appropriate equivalent — find it! To be safe, if possible it’s best to try to avoid the word altogether — and to choose a more specific term in each case.

Standards in technical documentation

In a certain sense, technical documents are one of the easiest types to translate. They often contain very little text, all of which is functional and explanatory – a technical manual for example. In this case, the key thing is to translate what few words there are as closely as possible, leaving no room for ambiguity. 

As such, the translator should concentrate on terminology, ensuring that technical vocabulary and is translated consistently within the text, as well as with all of that client’s documentation and the industry as a whole. Translating a standard correctly is hugely important, as a mistranslation of the name of a certain piece of equipment, say, could have disastrous consequences.

This point in particular underlines the importance of choosing a translator or LSP specialised in a certain sector or sector of a sector, just as it is with the internal reviewer. In order to stay on top of of contemporary terminology, it is fundamental that the translator be following that industry closely.

Find out more: How to be a Great Translator

Find out more: The role of the internal reviewer

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