Translation vs. Glossing

Nathaniel made an important point about translation last week and in doing so called our attention to something many of us had never even thought about. Robert Harrell then gave us a very succinct illustration of Nathaniel’s point, which I share here:

We are, I believe, acquainted with the word “glossary”. A glossary is merely a collection of glosses. We tend to call them translations, but when you think about it, a translation is taking an extended text from its idiomatic expression in one language to its idiomatic expression in the other language, accounting for context, nuances, etc. A gloss is simply a quick clarification of a word. I can gloss a word in the same language (i.e., give a definition) or I can gloss in a different language (i.e. give a “translation”).

– Have you ever tried biltong, dried meat similar to jerky?
– What is your Weltanschauung, the way you look at the world and interpret it?
– The patient is suffering from a subdural hematoma, a small blood clot below the skin

I just glossed three terms, one borrowed from South Africa, one borrowed from German (used in psychology and philosophy), and one used in English medical terminology. Did I “translate” them, or did I clarify meaning?



3 thoughts on “Translation vs. Glossing”

  1. One refinement in what I wrote:

    “A gloss is simply a quick clarification of a term.”
    “Term” is the better choice here because, as in my third example (subdural hematoma), it may consist of more than one word.

    Thanks, Ben.

  2. On a similar theme, I heard about the Dictogloss at the TESOL France conference. The teacher reads a short dictation At Normal Speed and students write down what they remember, then in groups put their notes together and try to come up with the original text. At upper levels, 3 + 4, this might be an interesting exercise. With students willing to stay in the target language, it would involve listening, writing, speaking and reading.

  3. I’ve been doing this without even realizing! When I read aloud in Spanish, I often find direct translation to be tedious (choral especially, but individually as well), so I make sure that I get clarification on just a word or two, knowing that my students understand most of the text.

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