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Translating ‘standard’

“Standard” is a tough word to translate. It means so many different things in English 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 an an adjective. A technical standard, for example, is a minimum specification which all manufacturers are expected to comply with.

FR: norme
DE: Norm
ES: norma
… etc.

So we have ISO, the International Standardization Organisation and CEN, the Comité Européenne de Normalisation. Sometimes we see “normalisation” in English, which is generally a bad translation from some other European language.

The verb “standardise” then 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 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” (Sp) or “level of living”. And in the armed forces a “standard” is an ensign or flag.

In French “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, the best advice for translators is to try to avoid the word altogether and to choose a more specific term in each case.

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