Overcoming English-Malay Translation Issues

English-Malay translation poses its own translating problems because these two languages don’t come from the same language family.

The main issue is non-equivalence where the target language has no direct equivalent for a word or a phrase in the source language.

Among the challenges are:

– Inappropriate equivalent word (collocation aspect). E.g corporate development is ‘pembangunan korporat’ but language development is ‘perkembangan bahasa’.
– Equivalent word according to field. E.g Search- ‘periksa’ for people and ‘geledah’ for premises.
– To match cultures  e.g lawa is ‘cantik’ if used in Selangor but refers to ‘sombong’ in Sarawak.  

Many theories on overcoming the issue of translation non-equivalence abound. I prefer to use the dynamic equivalence approach by Eugene Nida which aims at complete naturalness of expression. This approach prioritises the importance of translating something well enough that the message is communicated and received well by the reader. If communication fails, then language is useless.

Inevitably, what distinguishes professional translators from amateurs is their understanding and use of translation theory fundamentals. Among the techniques used are:

Direct translation

  • Borrow – word transfer from source language into target language without any changes, usually borrowed until they become target language words. This is divided into three categories:
    – Borrow permanently e.g bank, afidavit, forum, pneumonia
    Calque/loan translation e.g technical aspects/aspek teknikal, milkshake/susu kocak, fried rice/nasi goreng
    Borrow and modify/transliteration e.g collaboration/kolaborasi, transplant/transplan, innovation/inovasi
  • Literal – word for word translation, which fails to convey correct meaning. E.g He got the news straight from the horse’s mouth becomes ‘Dia menerima berita itu dari mulut kuda’ (which is wrong).

Indirect translation

  • Transposition – changing word class or word structure without changing meaning.
    E.g We must do our homework in order to do well becomes ‘Untuk berjaya, kita mesti membuat kerja rumah’.
  • Modulation – describe different points of view in looking at objects and phenomena in the real world. In short, manipulating perceptions, not grammar.
    E.g non-polluting is not translated as ‘no pollution’ because ‘pollution’ sounds negative hence ‘mesra alam’ is more positive which may change the reader’s perception.
  • Equivalence – a situation that can be conveyed using two different ways while retaining its meaning. E.g ‘Rice’ can be ‘beras’ or ‘nasi’.
  • Adaptation – the most complex method ever. Re-adjustment for purposes that are not in accordance with the customs and religious beliefs and cultural goals.
    E.g ‘Touch Me Skin!’ is not suitable to be translated ‘Sentuhlah kulit aku!’ as this marketing phrase will offend Malays hence it was adapted and translated as ‘Lembutnya kulitmu!’
  • Expansion – provide further information to clarify its meaning.
    E.g ‘Mereka membeli durian semasa menuju ke utara’  becomes ‘They bought durian (a type of Malaysian local fruit) as they travelled north’.
  • Omission/ generalisation – eliminating some of the messages in a text.
    E.g. ‘You have the choice of begonia, tulips and roses from the roadside florists’ becomes ‘Anda mempunyai pilihan pelbagai jenis bunga daripada penjual di tepi jalan’.

Apart from the methodology above, there are also other factors such as:

  1. There is NO equivalent translation for preposition. Prepositions must follow semantics. (Semantics is the study of meaning).
    E.g ‘You can find doctors and doctors’ is translated as ‘Anda boleh jumpa kawan dan lawan’ since ‘doctors and doctors’ refer to friends and enemies.
  2. Translation for figurative language also must follow semantics.
  3. Euphemism – a translation method to transform negative words into positive such as confirmed bachelor/gay, women in sensible shoes/lesbian, mentally challenged/cacat, pornography/adult entertainment, etc.

Of all possible methods, there are still words that cannot be translated well from English into Malay, especially in technical fields whereby we will ‘borrow’ plenty of English words.

Borrowing English words into Malay is not an easy process. It has to go through 4 steps before English words can be considered.

Rules On Word Derivation When Translating From English To Malay 

  1. First, search for the commonly used Malay word for this English word.
  2. If none, look for a word in the Malay language that is no longer used.
  3. If none, look for a word in a related or cognate language that is commonly used.
  4. If none, look for a word in a related or cognate language that is no longer used.Even then, there are a few exceptions to borrowing:
  • Borrowing from English word is not applicable when source word is created by our own people such as ‘tanjak’, ‘kukur kelapa’, etc.
  • The sound of the borrowed word does not match the way we pronounce such as burette, pipette etc.
How do you determine the quality of an English-Malay translation? Here are some pointers.

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