Words have meanings … and some have multiple definitions. So when you think about the challenges associated with learning another language, one of the first that comes to mind is the daunting task of associating meanings with thousands of unfamiliar sounds. Yet if memorization was all there was to fluently speaking a foreign language, the skill would be much, much easier to acquire than it is. One huge reason for this is the difference between denotation and connotation.

Translators USA matches connotation and denotation to create more accurate translations

Translators USA matches connotation and denotation to create more accurate translations

As defined by Merriam-Webster.com, ‘denotation’ is simply the meaning of a word or phrase. ‘Connotation, on the other hand, is “an idea or quality that a word makes you think about in addition to its meaning.”

Denotation (or definition) is fairly is easy to grasp, but to understand connotation, it may be help to have an example. Consider these two sentences:

1.  Paula has a plan for achieving early retirement.

2.  Paula has a scheme for achieving early retirement.

Though the definitions for ‘plan’ and ‘scheme’ are similar, the feelings they evoke are very different because of the words’ connotations. You can imagine the hurdle this would present to someone translating this information about Paula into another language. Without a strong grasp of the word’s connotations, Paula could be inaccurately portrayed as either admirably forward-thinking or potentially criminal.

There have been real life examples of this problem involving international heads of states. Some are nonsensical: German President Heinrich Lubke meant to comment to Queen Elizabeth II that a horse race was about to start, but applying his own strictly literal interpretation of the words, it came out as “Equal goes it loose.” The effects can also be funny: President Jimmy Carter used a cut-rate translator to help him tell the Polish people that he desired them carnally, when he actually said, “I have come to learn your opinions and understand your desires for the future.” There can also be serious repercussions: Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev seemed to threaten the destruction of the United States with the words “We will bury you!” However, a better understanding of the connotation of the original Russian would have been, “We will outlast you.”

Mastering language connotations is one big way that Translators USA’s linguists are distinguished from other translation-service providers. Our interpreters understand the language that exists within each language so that meanings are conveyed just as they would be understood by native speakers. With our assistance, you can admire someone’s childlike qualities without accidentally calling him a dwarf, or tell the representative of a foreign manufacturer that you love the company’s products and not have her make a hasty exit.