What are denotation and connotation?

The comprehension of the concepts of denotation and connotation is vital in translation. A translator without understanding the difference between these two concepts would be inclined to use only denotative meanings, or the definition one finds in a dictionary, and would therefore produce a very poor translation. However, when the translator is aware of connotative meanings, or the associations or emotions connected to a certain word, it enables them to choose a term that is usually much more accurate in terms of the effect produced on the target reader. According to German linguist Hans Vermeer’s Skopos Theory, “The function of a translation is dependent on the knowledge, expectations, values and norms of the target readers, who are again influenced by the situation they are in and by the culture.” (Kussmaul 1995, p. 149). Therefore, one could assume that the function of the translation itself is dependent on the translator’s knowledge and understanding of connotative meanings.

In addition to understanding connotative principles, the translator is required to understand the specific dimensions within connotative meanings. These serve as a guide to the translator who can then be aware of what to look for when attempting to portray the same connotations to the target reader as the source reader experienced. This is also known as domestication or transparency.

Firstly, there is the question of register. The term “inebriated”, for example, is a much more formal way to say “drunk”. One must also take into account that a term can be abstract or concrete, or in other words, one must be aware of whether a term is a hypernym or a hyponym. For example when translating the word “error” from Spanish, we have various options in English: error, mistake, blunder, etc. Error and mistake can be seen as synonyms, however, “blunder” is more specific and has various connotations such as being informal or denoting a large error. Furthermore, there are many instances where a word carries pejorative or favourable connotations; for example, calling someone “skinny” can sound rather negative compared to calling someone “slim” or “slender”. Additionally, connotations can be either forceful or weak, for example, “destroyed” does not have the same emphasis as “ruined”. Finally, connotations can hold emphasis with feelings and emotions, for example, whilst “cried” is fairly neutral, “wept” conveys much more emotion to the reader. Being aware of different dimensions in connotation helps the translator maintain the integrity of the text by allowing them to be faithful to the intended experience for the reader.

The translator also needs to be aware of connotational restrictions. These do not apply as much to the experience of the reader but to the relations between words and the correct word usage for the correct situation. For example, although “to pass away” is a perfectly acceptable synonym for “to die”, due to connotational restrictions, one can only use “to pass away” with humans and anthropomorphised pets. To say “due to the drought many trees have passed away” would be rather odd in English. In contexts with plants and animals, one is required to use “to die”. The same can be said for “réparer” in French, meaning “to repair”, which can only be used for shoes, machines and elements of the house. It is considered a mistake to use “réparer” in modern French to describe mending clothes.

What examples of connotation and/or denotation can you give in your own language(s)?

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