Volume 16, No. 2 
April 2011

  Sahar Farrahi Avval


Front Page

Select one of the previous 55 issues.

Index 1997-2011

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
One Translator's Journey
by Heidi Holzer

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
How do you Deal with Requests for Discounts?
by Danilo Nogueira and Kelli Semolini

Technical Translation
Specialization in Translation—myths and realities
by Charles Martin

  Translators and the Computer
An Analysis of Google Translate Accuracy
by Milam Aiken and Shilpa Balan
The New Five-Year-Rule
by Jost Zetzsche

  Translation Theory
How to Avoid Communication Breakdowns in Translation or Interpretation?
by Sahar Farrahi Avval
A Taxonomy of Human Translation Styles
by Michael Carl, Barbara Dragsted, and Arnt Lykke Jakobsen

  Language & Communication
Words of Greek Origin
by Aikaterini Spanakaki-Kapetanopoulos
Translation and Neologisms
by Forough Sayadi

  Literary Translation
'Speaking in the Feminine': Considerations for Gender-Sensitive Translation
by Kate James

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

  Translators' Tools
Translators’ Emporium

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
  Translation Journal
Translation Theory

How to Avoid Communication Breakdowns in Translation or Interpretation?

by Sahar Farrahi Avval
Islamic Azad University, Shahreza Branch, Isfahan, Iran


It happens to all people while communicating (speaking or writing), that they are unable to get their messages across and express what they mean and what they understand (called Communication Breakdowns). Through communication, people send and receive messages and negotiate meaning (Rubin and Thompson, 1994). Generally speaking, communication breakdowns may happen to anybody communicating in a language other than their dominant language. This problem, surely, can be solved, but how?

In this article, we will attempt to show you how and when breakdowns happen during the communication process and show you the measures by which you can overcome breakdowns to improve the effectiveness of communication in both speaking and writing (including translation), bearing in mind that translation itself is a kind and way of communication.

Key words: communicating, communication breakdowns, negotiate meaning, translation

1- Introduction

n this section, first, we will provide some definitions of communication and communication breakdowns offered by scholars in the field and show you when communication breakdowns occur; then, in the following sections, we will provide tips to overcome communication breakdowns during the act of communication.

Culture refers to a group's shared values and conventions, which act as mental guidelines for orienting people's thoughts and behavior.
Communication has different forms and it takes place in different situations. For example, you can communicate with others with your body gesture. You can also communicate with other people by speaking or by typing an email. But in this article, by communication we mean translation. After providing some definitions for communication, we will provide some statements regarding translation as a communication process.

1-1 Communication

People communicate to satisfy their needs. Communication can be carried out through different methods but the most effective method is through language.

Communication is defined as: the exchange of ideas, information, etc., between two or more individuals. In an act of communication there is usually at least one speaker or sender, a MESSAGE which is transmitted, and an individual or individuals for whom this message is intended (the receiver),( Rihards and Schmidt, 2002).

In CLT, "communication" means using language to make requests, give advice, agree and disagree, complain, praise, to try to persuade people to do things, and so on, (O'Neill, 2000).

1-2 Translation as a communication process

From the teleological point of view, translation is a process of communication; the objective of translating is to impart the information contained in the original text to the foreign reader ( Levy, 1967 as cited in Hatim and Munday, 2004).

Translation is a communication process that involves the transfer of a message from a source language to a target language. Text linguistics, which is concerned with the way the parts of text are organized and related to one another in order to form a meaningful whole, is useful for the analysis of the translation process and the transfer of meaning from one language to another ( Darwish, 2003).

Hatim and Mason (1997) consider translation as "an act of communication which attempts to relay, across cultural and linguistic boundaries, another act of communication." In most cases, according to Houbert (1998 as cited in Ordudari, 2008), "translation is to be understood as the process whereby a message expressed in a specific source language is linguistically transformed in order to be understood by readers of the target language".

Through translation, the meaning moves between languages and by translation, new ideas, cultural notions, new technologies, etc. are allowed to be transmitted into other cultures and societies. By translation, people of different countries can communicate to share information.

1-3 Communication breakdowns

While communicating (speaking, regardless of whether it is our native language or a second language, writing, or translating), some breakdown in our speaking and getting across our meaning will occur because of the lack and weakness of the communicator's knowledge of vocabulary or grammar. These breakdowns are called "communication breakdowns or difficulties" because they create problems while exchanging information between interlocutors. Communication breakdowns occur frequently and are unavoidable and can happen under specific conditions. Communication breakdowns in translation/ interpretation are the result of deficiency in one or more of the following:

  1. Language competence
  2. Knowledge of grammar and vocabulary of the target language
  3. Cultural differences and socio-cultural backgrounds
  4. Punctuation (in translation)
  5. Feedback from the interlocutors
  6. Characteristics of the receivers

2- How to avoid communication breakdowns

2-1 A good language competence

In the act of communication, no matter what language is spoken, between or among people of different languages, one of the most important competences is the ability to use communication strategies (CS), i.e., strategies to overcome communication breakdowns caused by inadequate competence.

To understand better what competence and communication strategies are, let us provide some brief definitions.

2-1- 1 Competence

Competence as Richards and Schmidt (2002, 93) state is "the implicit system of rules that constitutes a person's knowledge of a language. This includes a person's ability to create and understand sentences, including sentences they have never heard before, knowledge of what are and what are not sentences of a particular language, and the ability to recognize ambiguous and deviant sentences.

By competence, Chomsky means the shared knowledge of the ideal speaker-listener set in a completely homogenous speech community. Such underlying knowledge allows the speaker to produce and the listener to understand an infinite set of sentences out of a finite set of rules.

Here, we prefer to replace the term" competence" with the term "language competence" to make it more specific.

Since 1960s, various models of language competence have emerged, proposed by Hymes, Canale, Swain, Bachman, Brown, Cummins, Stern, Hansegard, van Ek, Moirand, Schachter, et al. ( Li and Ping, 2007).

Most of the researchers and applied linguists (Hymes, Canale, Swain, Bachman, Brown, Stern, Hansegard, et al.) hold that linguistic knowledge/grammatical competence is the basic component of language competence. Canale & Swain (1980) state that grammatical competence is the ability to use the forms of the language (sounds, words, and sentence structure).

We limit ourselves here to a definition of competence by Savignon (1972, 1997).Competence is defined in terms of the expression, interpretation, and negotiation of meaning and looks from both psycholinguistic and sociocultural perspectives in second language acquisition (SLA) research to account for its development.

2-1-2 Communication strategies (CSs)

CSs, as was mentioned above, are tactics or strategies used to overcome communication breakdowns caused by the inadequate competence.

According to Tarone (1981), communication strategy is a mutual attempt of two interlocutors to agree on a meaning in situations where the requisite meaning structures are not shared. The earliest study in this field is the taxonomic approach by Tarone (1977; 1981). Her methodology has served as a basis for subsequent studies of communication strategies, resulting in further typologies. (Bialystok 1990). She suggested CS typology based on output differences in the task-based interaction between native speakers (NS) and non-native speakers (NNSs).

To be more acquainted with CSs, here, we bring some typologies offered by some scholars of the field.

A model by Tarone (1977, 1983 as cited in Kongsom 2009) has been offered as follows:

Table 2.1 Tarone's taxonomy of CSs (
1977, 1983)

1. Avoidance

a Topic avoidance

b Message abandonment

2. Paraphrase

a Approximation

b Word coinage

c Circumlocution

3. Conscious transfer

a Literal translation

b Language switch

4. Appeal for assistance

5. Mime

Another model is offered proposed by Faerch and Kasper (1983 as sited in Kongsom 2009), as seen in Table 2.2.

Table 2.2 Faerch and Kasper's taxonomy of CSs

(1) Avoidance
(1.1) Formal reduction:
1.1.1 Phonological
1.1.2 Morphological
1.1.3 Grammar
(1.2) Functional reduction:
1.2.1 Actional
1.2.2 Propositional
1.2.3 Modal
(2) Achievement
(2.1) Non-cooperative: Codeswitching Foreignizing
2.1.2 Interlanguage strategies: Substitution Generalization Exemplification Word-coining Restructuring Description
2.1.3 Non-linguistic strategies: Mime Imitation
(2.2) Cooperative:
2.2.1 Appeals

Different scholars have proposed different taxonomies but they have many elements in common and named differently.

2-2 Knowledge of grammar and vocabulary

Grammar is the structural foundation of our ability to express ourselves. The more we are aware of how it works, the more we can monitor the meaning and effectiveness of the way we and others use language (Nordquist, 2010).

In our Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms (Nordquist, 2010) you'll find two definitions of grammar:

  1. The systematic study and description of a language.
  2. A set of rules and examples dealing with the syntax and word structures of a language, usually intended as an aid to the learning of that language.

Language is a set of words combining together to carry the meaning. Not all sets of words can carry the meaning, so words should be combined based on specific structures or rules. These rules are called grammar. Each language has its own rules. The study of grammar all by itself will not necessarily make you a better writer. But by gaining a clearer understanding of how your language works, you should also gain greater control over the way you shape words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. In short, studying grammar may help you become a more effective writer. The choice of words influences the degree to which the receivers can understand the translator/ interpreter. Great attention should be paid to every single characteristic of the words through which communication is carried out by the translator/ interpreter.

2-3 cultural differences and socio-cultural backgrounds

Culture is a set of beliefs, ideas, attitudes, customs, behaviors, festivals, cuisine and clothes styles. But on a deeper level we can consider culture as the organizer of all these elements. Culture actually refers to a group's shared values and conventions, which act as mental guidelines for orienting people's thoughts and behavior. (House, 2009 as cited in Karimipur 2009).

The National Center for Cultural Competence defines culture as an "integrated pattern of human behavior that includes thoughts, communications, languages, practices, beliefs, values, customs, courtesies, rituals, manners of interacting and roles, relationships and expected behaviors of a racial, ethnic, religious or social group; and the ability to transmit the above to succeeding generations" (Goode, Sockalingam, Brown, & Jones, 2000 as sited in Peterson and Coltrane 2003). This means that language is not only part of how we define culture; it also reflects culture.

Thus, the culture associated with a language cannot be learned in a few lessons about celebrations, folk songs, or costumes of the area in which the language is spoken. Culture is a much broader concept that is inherently tied to many of the linguistic concepts taught in second language classes and Language learners need to be aware, for example, of the culturally appropriate ways to address people, express gratitude, make requests, and agree or disagree with someone (Peterson and Coltrane 2003).

Although common culture and common language facilitate trade between people (Lasear, 1995), we do not unify cultures in translation or interpretation. We state that one of problematic areas in communication via translation can be the cultural differences between the culture of speaker or translator and that of his/ her audience.

There are many ways to correct this problem. While a new cultural concept is introduced by the translator/ interpreter or speaker, he/she should bear in mind that this category may be alien or new to the reader or listener. Here, the translator/ interpreter should try his/her best to clarify this concept. He/she can make use of different strategies to explain this new cultural concept to the reader or listener.

In many countries there are different cultures, social classes, and languages which makes it hard for the people of a particular country to communicate with each other because every person's culture reflects his/her way of thinking and ideology. The problem is, of course, more acute when dealing with cultural differences between nations?

The translator/ interpreter should be good reader of the text from the foreign culture he/she is going to translate. He/she should be acquainted with cultural issues of that language and country to be able to transmit them in the target language.

If cultural notions are not transmitted correctly to the reader or listener, a communication gap or breakdown will occur.

2-4 Punctuation (in translation)

Punctuation is everything in written language other than the actual letters or numbers, including punctuation marks, inter-word spaces, and indentation. Punctuation marks are symbols that direct the reader to the way of reading and understanding the text.

Sometimes a hesitation in speaking or a comma in writing can lead to totally different meanings. Not all differences will be radical, but sometimes small differences can lead to important misunderstandings and gaps.

In interpretation, hesitation in the right place can lead to the ideal understanding and no hesitation can lead to breakdown in communication.

2-5 Feedback from the interlocutors

The reactions or feedback that the translator/interpreter gets from the receivers, especially in interpretation can guide you to reach your goal or can misguide you.

In translation (written form), it is not always possible for the translator to correct the problems of translation which lead to breakdown in communication. But in interpretation, the feedback from the interlocutor)s) can help the interpreter to correct him/herself whenever a gap or breakdown takes place during the communication process. This feedback can be an eye contact or a nod.

2-6 Characteristics of the audience

Most of the time, the age and gender of the audience can guide the translator to a specific way of translation. Sometimes one original text is translated for different receivers based on their age. For example, the book "Little Prince" has been translated in Iran by translators such as Shamloo, Najafi and Ghazi based on different age groups. It is the way of narration and the choice of words and structures of a language that differentiate the texts prepared for adults or children. It is the job of the translator to observe this in addition to other factors to make a translation suitable for children or adults. Sometimes a book is written for a specific gender. The translator should be very careful to transfer those elements implemented in the original text into the target text to attract the same gender in the target language. So based on the skopos theory, the purpose and aim of translation can determine the special way it should be for a special gender or age group.


People who are proficient in grammar and have a vast vocabulary are not necessarily good communicators. Such people may also be faced with communication breakdowns because a good knowledge of grammar and vocabulary is not enough to overcome the unavoidable gaps and misunderstandings that occur during the communication process. Good language competence, knowing cultural differences, good knowledge of grammar, vocabulary and punctuation, paying attention to the feedback, age and gender of the receivers are the tools in the hand of the translator/ interpreter that help to save a translation/ interpretation as communication process from breakdowns.


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Karimipur.D. F.(2009). Cross-Cultural Communication and Translation.Translation Journal.13(4).Retrieved October 13, 2010 from http://translationjournal.net/journal/50culture.htm

Kongsom, T. (2009). The Effects of Teaching Communication Strategies to Thai Learners of English. Retrieved November 13, 2009.

Lazear, E. P. (1995). Culture and Language. Retrieved September 12, 2010 from Wiley Online Library. Retrieved December 6, 2010 from http://www.nber.org/papers/w5249.pdf

Nordquist, R.(n.d). What Is Grammar? Retrieved December 7, 2010 from http://www.About.com

Peterson, E. and Coltrane, B. (2003). Culture in Second Language Teaching. Retrieved December 6, 2010 from http://www.ihug.com.au/~qqqf/aep10critical.htm

Richards, J. C and Schmidt, R. (2002). Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics.(3rd ed.). London: Pearson Education Limited.

Rubin, J and Thompson, I. (1994). How To Be a More Successful Language Learner.TESL- EJ, 1, (3). Retrived October 21, 2009.