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Translation Challenges with Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs are so common in informal English speech that they are used almost unconsciously. In fact, many of us who frequently use phrasal verbs are unaware of just exactly what they are!


Unfortunately, phrasal verbs tend to have a negative impact on language translation, as the meaning of two or three words must be translated to a single verb which may have a very different tone or nuance than the combined words. This blog focuses on just one of the many ways that source English sentence structure can affect the quality of a translation project.

Phrasal verb defined

A phrasal verb is a combination of a verb and a preposition, a verb and an adverb, or a verb with both an adverb and a preposition. Any of these combinations are not only part of the syntax of the sentence, but are considered a complete semantic unit as well. Phrasal verbs are sometimes also referred to as ‘compound verb’, ‘verb-adverb combination’, or ‘verb-particle construction (VPC.)’

Phrasal verbs are particularly common in the English language and a phrasal verb often has a meaning which is quite different from the original verb. The idiomatic meaning allows a phrasal verb to be replaced with a single word verb. For instance, the phrasal verb “find out” can be replaced with “discover” or “determine,” as seen below:

  • Phrasal Verb: Find out the meaning of the error message.
  • Single Verb: Determine the meaning of the error message.

Phrasal verbs are commonly used in informal English speech, to avoid sounding formal or pretentious. Thus the phrase “let’s get together in the social hall after Church” sounds more inviting amongst friends than “let us congregate in the social hall after Church.”

How the meaning of a phrasal verb is determined

The phrasal verb is not considered as two parts but as one lexical unit. In most cases, the meaning of the combined words cannot be determined from the meaning of the verb or the adverb in isolation. A characteristic of the phrasal verb is that the individual verb rarely carries the same meaning when the adverb or preposition has been deleted or replaced by another one.

For example:

  • It is not easy to bring up children nowadays.
  • It is not easy to bring children nowadays.

To bring children clearly does not have the same meaning as to bring up children and therefore the verb “bring” needs the adverb “up” in order to convey the meaning “raise children.” According to this example, bring up is a phrasal verb.


How phrasal verbs affect translation

Difficulties arise when English-to-Spanish translators at your translation company need to translate phrasal verbs. These verb combinations are a clear example of “Nil Equivalence”, given that they only exist in English. The most common errors made by Spanish translators when translating phrasal verbs are semantic errors, which reflect an incomplete understanding of the meaning of phrasal verbs. Some Spanish language translators tend to confuse phrasal verbs and single-word verbs whose meanings are related. On the other hand, when Spanish linguists translate into English, they generally avoid phrasal verbs.

In view of all the difficulties that phrasal verbs entail, content creators would do well to make a list of over-used phrasal verbs and avoid their usage in technical documentation. Obviously, phrasal verbs will continue to be used in source English for persuasive marketing literature which often uses a more informal tone to make the message more inviting. During Spanish translation, phrasal verbs should be dealt with in light of their syntax and context, not in isolation.

Replacing phrasal verbs with a single verb

The chart below shows some examples of how a phrasal verb can be replaced with a single verb that has obvious meaning during the translation process.

Phrasal verb Intended Meaning Example Alternate wording for phrasal verb
fill out complete a form Fill out the rebate form and mail it to customer service. Complete the rebate form and mail it to customer service.
look up search in a list or reference Look up the error message meaning in Appendix A. Consult Appendix A for the error message meaning.
make up invent a story or lie He tended to make up statistics. He tended to invent statistics.
take down make a written note Please take down the key points of each presentation Please note the key points of each presentation.

Useful research on phrasal verbs

Since phrasal verbs do not exist in Spanish, translators should be made aware of that and should try to become familiar with them by reading about the subject in grammar books and specialized dictionaries of phrasal verbs.

The references list below helped me “find out” more and more about phrasal verbs. If these word combinations still present a challenge for you, “go ahead” and review these materials as well; I’m sure you will “figure it out!”