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Lost in Translation – Context Matters as much as Word Usage


February 14, 2015

There’s a lot of translation services available on the web. I use Google Translate. It isn’t perfect, especially when translating English to anything else, but it’s probably one of the best. I’m not a linguist in any variation of the word, but I’m getting better at translating English to Tagalog (Filipino) and back again. In fact, I was playing a game involving translation with my nieces and nephews (living in the compound) yesterday evening. It was a lot of fun for them and tiring for me.

Literal Translation and Context Translation

If you’re good with American English grammar, then you know there are many ways to say something. One example is “I don’t know”. Some people reply with “I have no idea”. They mean the same thing, in context, even if they’re literally different.

Context matters and I’ve seen politicians, media people and lawyers purposely taking things out of context to change the meaning to something completely different from the intended meaning.

English to Tagalog Translation

Most of the game was from English to Tagalog. I would say something in English and they’d have to translate it into Tagalog. Years ago, I wouldn’t have known if they answered correctly or not. Nowadays, I rarely need help with it. Of course, I had a sister-in-law close at hand for when I couldn’t remember what something in Tagalog meant.

One of my sentences could’ve been translated in many ways: “I have no money because of gambling.” That’s a sentence I knew they could relate to.


The literal translation, courtesy of Google Translate, is “Wala akong pera dahil sa pagsusugal.” The word “dahil” can be replaced by “kasi” (both mean “because”) and sometimes I think some words are used as a matter of preference, not what’s more correct.

Another variation could include “nawala” or “naubos”, which both mean “gone”. It all depends on how I word the sentence. There are so many ways to say I’m broke because I gambled my money away. I’m not, of course, but it’s a damn good example (I don’t gamble).

When I speak to someone who doesn’t speak English, I have to be very careful about what I say and how I say it. Context helps but sometimes context can’t help when I butcher Tagalog like I’ve been known to do in the past. I try to pick up words and phrases by how they’re used (you know, context) and sometimes it’s a losing proposition.

How can I do mental translations on certain words when the people who speak them natively refuse to speak them correctly? One example is “huwag” (don’t). They never say “huwag”. They always say “wag”. With things like that holding me back, it’s amazing I’ve learned anything at all from them.

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