Translation Techniques: Modulation

By Chiara Grassilli
In Translation Techniques
May 2nd, 2016


Another translation technique that is widely used is called modulation.

Modulation basically means using a phrase that is different in the source and target languages to convey the same idea: Te lo dejo means literally I leave it to you but translates much better as You can have it.  It obviously changes the semantics and shifts the point of view of the source language. Modulation help the translator generate a change in the point of view of the message without altering its meaning and without generating an unnatural feeling in the reader of the target text.

Modulation is often used within the same language. The expressions es fácil de entender (it is easy to understand) and no es complicado de entender (it is not complicated to understand) are relevant examples of modulation. Although both have exactly the same meaning, it is easy to understand  is actually conveying easiness, whereas it is not complicated to understand implies a previous assumption of difficulty that we are denying by asserting it is not complicated to understand. This type of technique helps the reader a lot and it makes him think that this is the exact way of saying things in their language.

Modulation is defined by Gérard Hardin and Gynthia Picot (1990) as “a change in point of view that allows us to express the same phenomenon in a different way”.  We can distinguish two types of modulation:

–  Recorded modulation, also called standard modulation: it is usually used in bilingual dictionaries. It is conventionally established and is considered by many to be a ready-made procedure.

–  Free modulation:  this second type is considered to be more practical in cases where “the target language rejects literal translation”.

There are around eleven categories or types of free modulation:

–  Negated contrary– is a procedure that relies on changing the values of the source text in translation from negative to positive or vice versa. For instance: It is difficult can be translated into French as “ce n’est pas facile” or in Spanish “No es facil”. It should be added in this case that these examples are all free translations and their correctness depends on the context. Yet, modulations become compulsory when there is a lexical gap in opposition.

–  Part of the whole modulations: e.g. ‘fille aînée de l’Église’ stands for ‘France’

There are many other procedures that can be used, but they are less frequent. These are: abstract for concrete, cause for effect, space for time, etc.  But impersonal or active for passive is still the most frequent and useful procedure. An example of the latter is:

English: He is said to be serious.

French: On dit qu’il est sérieux.

All in all, modulation as a procedure of translation occurs when there is a change of perspective accompanied with a lexical change in the target language. Yet, this procedure should better be avoided unless it is necessary for the naturalness of the translation.

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About "" Has 116 Posts

Since an early age I have been passionate about languages. I hold a Master's degree in Translation and Interpreting, and I have worked as a freelance translator for several years. I specialize in Marketing, Digital Marketing, Web and Social Media. I love blogging and I also run the blog

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