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Translation is an activity comprising the interpretation of the meaning of a text in one language — the source text — and the production, in another language, of a new, equivalent text — the target text, or translation.

Traditionally, translation has been a human activity, although attempts have been made to automate and computerize the translation of natural-language texts — machine translation — or to use computers as an aid to translation — computer-assisted translation.

The goal of translation is to establish a relation of equivalence of intent between the source and target texts (that is to say, to ensure that both texts communicate the same message), while taking into account a number of constraints. These constraints include context, the rules of grammar of both languages, their writing conventions, their idioms, and the like.

The term and the concept of "translation"

"Translation" is, etymologically, a "carrying across" or "bringing across": the Latin translatio derives from transferre (trans, "across" + ferre, "to carry" or "to bring"). The modern European languages, Romance, Germanic and Slavic, have generally formed their own equivalent terms for this concept after the Latin model: after transferre or after the kindred traducere ("to lead across" or "to bring across"). Additionally, the Greek term for "translation," metaphrasis (a "speaking across"), has supplied English with "metaphrase," meaning a literal, or word-for-word, translation, as contrasted with "paraphrase" (a "saying in other words," from the Greek paraphrasis).

Common misconceptions

Many newcomers to translation wrongly believe it is an exact science, and mistakenly assume a firmly defined one-to-one correlation exists between the words and phrases in different languages which make translations fixed, much like cryptography. In that vein, many assume all one needs to translate a given passage is to decipher between the languages using a translation dictionary. On the contrary, such a fixed relationship would only exist were a new language synthesized and continually synchronized alongside an existing language in such a way that each word carried exactly the same scope and shades of meaning as the original, with careful attention to preserve the etymological roots, assuming they were even known with certainty. In addition, if the new language were ever to take on a life of its own apart from such a strict cryptographic use, each word would begin to take on new shades of meaning and cast off previous associations, making any such synthetic synchronization impossible. As such, translation from that point on would require the disciplines described in this article. Suffice it to say, while equivalence is sought by the translators, less rigid and more analytical methods are required to arrive at a true translation.

There is also debate as to whether translation is an art or a craft. Literary translators, such as Gregory Rabassa in "If This Be Treason" argue convincingly that translation is an art, though he acknowledges that it is teachable. Other translators, mostly professionals working on technical, business, or legal documents, approach their task as a craft, one that can not only be taught but is subject to linguistic analysis and benefits from academic study. Most translators will agree that the truth lies somewhere between and depends on the text. A simple document, for instance a product brochure, can be quickly translated in many cases using simple techniques familiar to advanced language students. By contrast, a newspaper editorial, text of a speech by a politician, or book on almost any subject will require not only the craft of good language skills and research technique but also the art of good writing, cultural sensitivity, and communication.

Translation vs. interpreting

A distinction is made between translation, which consists of transferring from one language to another ideas expressed in writing, and interpreting, which consists of transferring ideas expressed orally or by the use of gestures (as in the case of sign language).

Although interpreting can be considered a subcategory of translation in regard to the analysis of the processes involved (translation studies), in practice the skills required for these two activities are quite different. Translators and interpreters are trained in entirely different manners. Translators receive extensive practice with representative texts in various subject areas, learn to compile and manage glossaries of relevant terminology, and master the use of both current document-related software (for example, word processors, desktop publishing systems, and graphics or presentation software) and computer-assisted translation (CAT) software tools.

Interpreters, by contrast, are trained in precise listening skills under taxing conditions, memory and note-taking techniques for consecutive interpreting (in which the interpreter listens and takes notes while the speaker speaks, and then after several minutes provides the version in the other language), and split-attention for simultaneous interpreting (in which the interpreter, usually in a booth with a headset and microphone, listens and speaks at the same time, usually producing the interpreted version only seconds after the speaker provides the original).

The industry expects interpreters to be about 70% accurate; that is to say that interpretation is an approximate version of the original. Translations should be over 99% accurate, by contrast.

Translation process

The translation process, whether it be for translation or interpreting, can be described simply as:

Decoding the meaning of the source text, and
Re-encoding this meaning in the target language.

To decode the meaning of a text the translator must first identify its component "translation units", that is to say the segments of the text to be treated as a cognitive unit. A translation unit may be a word, a phrase or even one or more sentences. Behind this seemingly simple procedure lies a complex cognitive operation. To decode the complete meaning of the source text, the translator must consciously and methodically interpret and analyse all its features. This process requires thorough knowledge of the grammar, semantics, syntax, idioms and the like of the source language, as well as the culture of its speakers.

The translator needs the same in-depth knowledge to re-encode the meaning in the target language. In fact, often translators' knowledge of the target language is more important, and needs to be deeper, than their knowledge of the source language. For this reason, most translators translate into a language of which they are native speakers.

In addition, knowledge of the subject matter being discussed is essential.

In recent years studies in cognitive linguistics have been able to provide valuable insights into the cognitive process of translation.

Measuring success in translation

As the goal of translation is to ensure that the source and the target texts communicate the same message while taking into account the various constraints placed on the translator, a successful translation can be judged by two criteria:

Faithfulness, also called fidelity, which is the extent to which the translation accurately renders the meaning of the source text, without adding to it or subtracting from it, and without intensifying or weakening any part of the meaning; and
Transparency, which is the extent to which the translation appears to a native speaker of the target language to have originally been written in that language, and conforms to the language's grammatical, syntactic and idiomatic conventions.

A translation meeting the first criterion is said to be a "faithful translation"; a translation meeting the second criterion is said to be an "idiomatic translation". The two are not necessarily exclusive.

The criteria used to judge the faithfulness of a translation vary according to the subject, the precision of the original contents, the type, function and use of the text, its literary qualities, its social or historical context, and so forth.

The criteria for judging the transparency of a translation would appear more straightforward: an unidiomatic translation "sounds" wrong, and in the extreme case of word-for-word translations generated by many machine translation systems, often result in patent nonsense with only a humorous value.

Nevertheless, in certain contexts a translator may knowingly strive to produce a literal translation. For example, literary translators and translators of religious works often adhere to the source text as much as possible. To do this they deliberately "stretch" the boundaries of the target language to produce an unidiomatic text. Likewise, a literary translator may wish to adopt words or expressions from the source language to provide "local colour" in the translation.

The concepts of fidelity and transparency are looked at differently in recent translation theories. The idea that acceptable translations can be as creative and original as their source text is gaining momentum in some quarters.

In recent decades, the most prominent advocates of non-transparent translation modes include the Franco-Canadian translation scholar Antoine Berman who identified twelve deforming tendencies inherent in most prose translations (L’épreuve de l’étranger, 1984), and the American theorist Lawrence Venuti who called upon translators to apply "foreignizing" translation strategies instead of domesticating ones (see, for example, his 'Call to Action' in The Translator’s Invisibility, 1994).

Many non-transparent translation theories draw on concepts of German Romanticism, with the most obvious influence on latter-day theories of foreignization being the German theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher. In his seminal lecture "On the Different Methods of Translation" (1813) he distinguished between translation methods that move "the writer toward [the reader]", i.e. transparency, and those that move the "reader toward [the author] ", i.e. respecting the foreignness of the source text. Schleiermacher clearly favoured the latter. It is worth pointing out, however, that his preference was motivated not so much by a desire to embrace the foreign but was rather intended as a nationalist practice to oppose France's cultural domination and to promote German literature.

The concepts of fidelity and transparency remain strong in Western traditions, however. They are not necessarily as prevalent in non-Western traditions. For example, the Indian epic Ramayana has numerous versions in many Indian languages and the stories in each are different from one another. If one looks into the words used for translation in Indian (either Aryan or Dravidian) languages, the freedom given to the translators is evident.

Translation problems
General problems

Translation is inherently a difficult activity. Translators can face additional problems which make the process even more difficult, such as:

Problems with the source text:

Changes made to the text during the translation process
Illegible text
Misspelled or misprinted text
Incomplete text
Poorly written text
Missing references in the text (for example the translator is to translate captions to missing photos)
The source text contains a translation of a quotation that was originally made in the target language, and the original text is unavailable, making word-for-word quoting nearly impossible
Obvious inaccuracies in the source text (for example "prehistoric Buddhist ruins", when Buddhism was not founded during prehistoric times)

Language problems

Dialect terms and neologisms
Unexplained acronyms and abbreviations
Obscure jargon


Rhymes, puns and poetic meters
Highly specific cultural references
Subtle but important properties of language such as euphony or dissonance

The problem of "untranslatability"

Main article: Untranslatability

The question of whether particular words are untranslatable is often debated, with lists of "untranslatable" words being produced from time to time. These lists often include words such as saudade, a Portuguese word as an example of an "untranslatable". It translates quite neatly however as "sorrowful longing", but does have some nuances that are hard to include in a translation; for instance, it is a positive-valued concept, a subtlety which is not clear in this basic translation.

Some words are hard to translate only if one wishes to remain in the same grammatical category. For example, it is hard to find a noun corresponding to the Russian ????????? (pochemuchka) or the Yiddish ?????? (shlimazl), but the English adjectives "inquisitive" and "jinxed" correspond just fine.

Journalists are naturally enthusiastic when linguists document obscure words with local flavour, and are wont to declare them "untranslatable", but in reality these incredibly culture-laden terms are the easiest of all to translate, even more so than universal concepts such as "mother". This is because it is standard practice to translate these words by the same word in the other language, borrowing it for the first time if necessary. For example, an English version of a menu in a French restaurant would rarely translate pâté de foie gras as "fat liver paste", although this is a good description. Instead, the accepted translation is simply pâté de foie gras, or, at most, foie gras pâté. In some cases, only transcription is required: Japanese ?? translates into English as wasabi. A short description or parallel with a familiar concept is also often acceptable: ??? may also be translated as "Japanese horseradish" or "Japanese mustard".

The more obscure and specific to a culture the term is, the simpler it is to translate. For example, the name of an insignificant settlement such as Euroa in Australia is automatically just "Euroa" in every language in the world that uses the Roman alphabet, whilst it takes some knowledge to be aware that Saragossa is Zaragoza, Saragosse, etc. or that China is ??, Cina, Chine, and so forth.

The problem of common words

The words that are truly difficult to translate are often the small, common words. For example, the verb "to get" in all its various uses covers nearly seven columns of the most recent version of the Robert-Collins French-English dictionary. The same is true for most apparently simple, common words, such as "go" (seven columns), "come" (four and a half columns), and so forth.

Cultural aspects can complicate translation. Consider the example of a word like "bread". At first glance, it is a very simple word, referring in everyday use to just one thing, with obvious translations in other languages. But ask people from England, France or China to describe or draw "bread", du pain or ?? (miàn b?o), and they will describe different things, based on their individual cultures.

Differing levels of precision inherent in a language also play a role. What does "there" mean? Even discounting idiomatic uses such as "there, there, don't cry", we can be confronted by several possibilities. If something is "there" but not very far away, a Spaniard will say ahí; if it is further away he or she will say allí, unless there are connotations of "near there", "over yonder" or "on that side", in which case the word is likely to be allá. Conversely, in colloquial French, all three "there" concepts plus the concept of "here" all tend to be expressed with the word là.

A language may contain expressions which refer to concepts that do not exist in another language. For example, the French "tutoyer"' and "vouvoyer" would both be translated into English as "to address as 'you'", since the singular informal second person pronoun is archaic in English. Yet this simplistic translation completely destroys the meaning of the verbs: "vouvoyer" means to address using the formal "you" form ("vous"), whereas "tutoyer" means to use the informal form ("tu"). Indeed, when English was using the "thou" pronoun, "thou" as a verb would have been a translation for "tutoyer"; today, it is difficult to give a concise translation that captures the nuances of "tu" vs. "vous."

The problem often lies in failure to distinguish between translation and glossing. Glossing is what a glossary does: give a short (usually one-word) equivalent for each term. Translation, as explained above, is decoding meaning and intent at the text level (not the word level or even sentence level) and then re-encoding them in a target language. Words like saudade and ?????? are hard to "gloss" into a single other word, but given two or more words they can be perfectly adequately "translated". Similarly, depending on the context, the meaning of the French word "tutoyer", or Spanish "tutear", could be translated as "to be on first name terms with". "Bread" has perhaps a better claim to being untranslatable, since even if we resort to saying "French bread", "Chinese bread", "Algerian bread", etc. we are relying on our audience knowing what these are like.

Specialised types of translation

Any type of written text can be a candidate for translation, however, the translation industry is often categorised by a number of areas of specialization. Each specialisation has its own challenges and difficulties. An incomplete list of these specialised types of translation includes:

Administrative translation

The translation of administrative texts.

Commercial translation

The translation of commercial (business) texts. This category may include marketing and promotional materials directed to consumers.

Computer translation

The translation of computer programs and related documents (manuals, help files, web sites.)

The notion of localisation, that is the adaptation of the translation to the target language and culture, is gaining prevalence in this area of specialisation.

(Note that the term "computer translation" is sometimes used to refer to the practice of machine translation, using computers to automatically translate texts.)

General translation

The translation of "general" texts. In practice, few texts are really "general"; most fall into a specialisation but are not seen as such.

Legal translation

Main article: Legal translation

The translation of legal documents (laws, contracts, treaties, etc.).

A skilled legal translator is normally as adept at the law (often with in-depth legal training) as with translation, since inaccuracies in legal translations can have serious results.

(One example of problematic translation is the Treaty of Waitangi, where the English and Maori versions differ in certain important areas.)

Sometimes, to prevent such problems, one language will be declared authoritative, with the translations not being considered legally binding, although in many cases this is not possible, as one party does not want to be seen as subservient to the other.

Literary translation

The translation of literary works (novels, short stories, plays, poems, etc.)

If the translation of non-literary works is regarded as a skill, the translation of fiction and poetry is much more of an art. In multilingual countries such as Canada, translation is often considered a literary pursuit in its own right. Figures such as Sheila Fischman, Robert Dickson and Linda Gaboriau are notable in Canadian literature specifically as translators, and the Governor General's Awards present prizes for the year's best English-to-French and French-to-English literary translations with the same standing as more conventional literary awards.

Writers such as Vladimir Nabokov have also made a name for themselves as literary translators.

Many consider poetry the most difficult genre to translate, given the difficulty in rendering both the form and the content in the target language. In 1959 in his influential paper "On Linguistic Aspects of Translation", the Russian-born linguist and semiotician Roman Jakobson even went as far as to declare that "poetry by definition [was] untranslatable". In 1974 the American poet James Merrill wrote a poem, "Lost in Translation," which in part explores this subject. This question was also explored in Douglas Hofstadter's 1997 book, Le Ton beau de Marot.

Translation of sung texts — sometimes referred to as a "singing translation" — is closely linked to translation of poetry, simply because most vocal music, at least in the Western tradition, is set to verse, especially verse in regular patterns with rhyme. (Since the late 19th century musical setting of prose and free verse has also come about in some art music, although popular music tends to remain conservative in its retention of stanzaic forms with or without refrains.) A rudimentary example of translating poetry for singing is church hymns, such as German chorales translated into English by Catherine Winkworth.

Translation of sung texts is generally much more restrictive than translation of poetry, because in the former there is little or no freedom to choose between a versified translation and a translation that dispenses with verse structure. One might modify or omit rhyme in a singing translation, but the assignment of syllables to specific notes in the original musical setting places great challenges on the translator. There is the option in prose, less so in verse, of adding or deleting a syllable here and there by subdividing or combining notes, respectively, but even with prose the process is nevertheless almost like strict verse translation because of the need to stick as close as possible to the original prosody. Other considerations in writing a singing translation include repetition of words and phrases, the placement of rests and/or punctuation, the quality of vowels sung on high notes, and rhythmic features of the vocal line that may be more natural to the original language than to the target language.

Whereas the singing of translated texts has been common for centuries, it is less necessary when a written translation is provided in some form to the listener, for instance, as inserts in concert programs or as projected titles in performance halls or visual media.

Medical translation

The translation of works of a medical nature.

Like pharmaceutical translation, medical translation is specialisation where a mistranslation can have grave consequences.

Pedagogical translation

Translation practised as a means of learning a second language.

Pedagogical translation is used to enrich (and to assess) the student's vocabulary in the second language, to help assimilate new syntactic structures and to verify the student's understanding. Unlike other types of translation, pedagogical translation takes place in the student's native (or dominant) language as well as the second language. That is to say that the student will translate both to and from the second language. Another difference between this mode of translation and other modes is that the goal is often literal translation of phrases taken out of context, and of text fragments, which may be completely fabricated for the purposes of the exercise.

Pedagogical translation should not be confused with scholarly translation.

Scientific translation

The translation of scientific texts.

Scholarly translation

The translation of specialised texts written in an academic environment.

Scholarly translation should not be confused with pedagogical translation.

Technical translation

The translation of technical texts (manuals, instructions, etc.).

More specifically, texts that contain a high amount of terminology, that is, words or expressions that are used (almost) only within a specific field, or that describe that field in a great deal of detail.

Translation for dubbing and film subtitles

Dialogs and narrations of feature movies and foreign TV programs need to be translated for the local viewers. In this case, translation for dubbing and translation for film subtitles demand different versions for the best effect.

Translation of religious texts

The translation of religious works has played an important role in world history. For instance the Buddhist monks who translated the Indian sutras into the Chinese language would often skew the translation to better adapt to China's very different culture. Thus notions such as filial piety were stressed.

See also: Chinese Translation Theory

One of the first instances of recorded translation activity in the West was the rendition of the Old Testament into Greek in the third century B.C.E.; this translation is known as the Septuagint, alluding to the seventy translators (seventy-two in some versions) that were commissioned to translate the Bible on the island of Paphos, with each translator working in solitary confinement in a separate cell. Legend has it that all seventy versions were exactly identical. The Septuagint became the source text for later translations into many other languages including Latin, Coptic, Armenian, and Georgian.

St. Jerome, the patron saint of translation, is still considered one of the greatest translators in history for his work on translating the Bible into Latin. The Catholic Church used this translation (known as the Vulgate) for centuries, but even his translation met much controversy when it was released.

The period prior to and contemporary with the Protestant Reformation saw the translation of the Bible into the local languages of Europe, an act that had a great impact on the split between Protestantism and Catholicism, owing to the divergences between the Protestant and Catholic translations of particular words and passages of the Bible.

Martin Luther's Bible in German, Jakub Wujek's Bible in Polish, and the King James Bible in English had lasting effects on the religion, culture, and language of those countries.

See also: Bible translation and Translation of the Qur'an

Trends in translation
Machine translation

Machine translation (MT) is a form of translation where a computer program analyses the source text and produces a target text without human intervention.

In recent years machine translation, a major goal of natural language processing, has met with limited success. Most machine translation involves some sort of human intervention, as it requires a pre-editing and a post-editing phase. Note that in machine translation, the translator supports the machine.

Tools available on the Internet, such as AltaVista's Babel Fish, and low-cost translation programs, have brought machine translation technologies to a large public. These tools produce what is called a "gisting translation" — a rough translation that gives the "gist" of the source text, but is not otherwise usable.

However, in fields with highly limited ranges of vocabulary and simple sentence structure, for example weather reports, machine translation can deliver useful results.

Engineer and futurist Raymond Kurzweil has predicted that by 2012, machine translation will be powerful enough to dominate the translation field. MIT's Technology Review also listed universal translation and interpretation as likely "within a decade" in its 2004 list. Such claims, however, have been made since the first serious forays into machine translation in the 1950s.

Computer-assisted translation

Main article: Computer-assisted translation

Computer-assisted translation (CAT), also called computer-aided translation, is a form of translation where a human translator creates a target text with the assistance of a computer program. Note that in computer-assisted translation, the machine supports an actual, human translator.

Computer-assisted translation can include standard dictionary and grammar software; however, the term is normally used to refer to a range of specialised programs available for the translator, including translation memory, terminology management and alignment programs.

Translation memory (TM) programs store previously translated source texts and their equivalent target texts in a database and retrieve related segments during the translation of new texts.

Such programs split the source text into manageable units known as "segments." A source-text sentence or sentence-like unit (headings, titles or elements in a list) may be considered a segment, or texts may be segmented into larger units such as paragraphs or small ones, such as clauses. As the translator works through a document, the software displays each source segment in turn and provides a previous translation for re-use, if the program finds a matching source segment in its database. If it does not, the program allows the translator to enter a translation for the new segment. After the translation for a segment is completed, the program stores the new translation and moves onto the next segment. The translation memory, in principle, is a simple database fields containing the source language segment, the translation of the segment, and other information such as segment creation date, last access, translator name, and so on.

Some translation memory programs function as standalone environments, while others function as an add-on or macro to commercially available word-processing or other business software programs. Add-on programs allow source documents from other formats, such as desktop publishing files, spreadsheets, or HTML code, to be handled using the TM program.

Terminology management software provides the translator a means of automatically searching a given terminology database for terms appearing in a document, either by automatically displaying terms in the translation memory software interface window or through the use of hot keys to view the entry in the terminology database. Some programs have other hotkey combinations allowing the translator to add new terminology pairs to the terminology database on the fly during translation.

Alignment programs take completed translations, divide both source and target texts into segments, and attempt to determine which segments belong together in order to build a translation memory database with the content. The resulting TM can then be used for future translations.

Cultural translation

This is a new area of interest in the field of translation studies. Cultural translation is a concept used in cultural studies to denote the process of transformation, linguistic or otherwise, in a given culture. The concept uses linguistic translation as a tool or metaphor in analysing the nature of transformation in cultures. For example, ethnography is considered a translated narrative of an abstract living culture.

Criticism of translation

From time to time, criticism can be made of the act of translation. One such criticism is the lack of "coherence" in translation. The criticism can be stated as follows. If a story originally written in English, and taking place in an English speaking country, is translated into French, for example, it can lose its logic because of sentences like "Do you speak English?" The critic asks what the translation should be. "Parlez-vous anglais?" or "Parlez-vous français?". According to this criticism, the answer will be self-contradictory. If the answer to the question were yes, for the first translation this would mean something like, "Yes I speak a language you are not using and that is absolutely irrelevant". For the second translation it would mean "Yes, this is an English speaking country, and yet everyone, including myself, is speaking French." The gist of this criticism that one of the main rules in translation is to "keep the context", and that the language of the document is itself the heart of the context.

This criticism can be rebutted in several ways. First, this kind of situation arises rarely in real-world translations. When it does, the translator can use techniques to avoid the problem by, for example, translating "Do you speak English?" by "Do you speak my language?" or "Do you understand what I say?" Another point is that a French-speaking reader who is reading a book written by, say, Agatha Christie describing a murder in an English stately home, most likely realises that the characters were speaking English in the original.

Another criticism is of a more philosophical nature. It claims that translation can be described as writing what you have read in another language. The question arises whether the reader can know whether the translator understands the original author perfectly. While this is the translator's job, it is the author who is praised for the work; but can a translation of Asimov be considered as Asimov's work? According to this criticism, translation could even be seen as "legal plagiarism". Translations can be quite different from the original: for instance, the name of Zaphod Beeblebrox in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams was translated into French by Jean Bonnefoy as Zapi Bibici, and the name of Captain Widdershins in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket was translated into Portuguese as Capitão Andarré. While this is not a huge difference, it is there. Adams and Snicket may not have been completely happy with this change, and it is by a series of such small changes that a translation becomes an adaptation, according to this criticism. There is the further consideration, that practically every name used in a fictional work is chosen by the author for some reason; this could be the mere sound of the name, or it could involve some imbedded morpheme that evokes an associated sense. Therefore, since all languages have different phonologies, and different morphemes, we would fully expect that a fictional name be different in a translated work.

Such justifications notwithstanding, real or perceived divergences between the source and translated texts is a long-time complaint of translation, that is expressed in the Italian expression Traduttore, traditore — every translation is a betrayal. On the other hand, rarely is a work of fiction translated without a negotiation as to rights, and many an author will be happy to put aside reservations about the names of characters for the opportunity to increase his readership.

See also

Computer-assisted translation (CAT)
Fan translation
Legal translation
Machine translation (MT)

Translation publications

Translation Journal, quarterly edited by Gabe Bokor
Pusteblume, published at Boston University
Translation Review, published three times annually by the Center for Translation Studies
Two Lines, published by the Center for the Art of Translation
Circumference, journal of poetry in translation
Meta : Journal des traducteurs, published by the Université de Montréal

Translation associations

American Literary Translators Association
American Translators Association
Association Internationale des Interprètes de Conférence / International Association of Conference Interpreters
Australian Institute of Interpreters and Translators
Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council
German Translators' and Interpreters' Association
Globalization and Localization Association
Institute of Translation & Interpreting (UK)
International Association of Conference Translators
International Federation of Translators
Irish Translators' Association
Localization Industry Standards Association
New Zealand Society of Translators and Interpreters
The Institute of Localisation Professionals

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