I hope this is the right place for this question. It pertains to speaking about translations in English.

It is often necessary to provide a translation that conveys the meaning and intent of the original while sacrificing certain details in order to sound natural in the target language.

I don't mean the case of choosing a fixed expression like "two peas in a pod" in the target language that roughly corresponds to one in the source, but rather the more common case of a term that is present and literally meaningful in the original but which usually doesn't make it into the target because it would feel unnecessary or awkward.

Is there an English verb that captures this? I find myself wanting to say that such-and-such a term is "glossed out" of the translation, but it seems that the term "gloss" has a different meaning in linguistics (I understand that it means an explanatory note, not a translation). On the other hand, I have also seen translations within Japanese-English dictionaries referred to as glosses.

The background to this question is that I write about the Japanese language for English-speaking learners and frequently have to refer to this sort of thing. It feels natural to me to say terms are "glossed out" of translations, but I want to make sure I'm not misusing terms. Thank you in advance for any thoughts.

Edit: My original question asked about the overall process of providing natural translations. I apologize -- I meant to focus on the act of deliberately eliminating source terms as one part of that effort.

Edit: Someone asked for an example of this. Take this sentence:

机の上に、本が置いてある。 There is a book on top of the desk.

For learners, the last part, 置いてある, takes a little explaining. It is the verb "put" in the active voice but as part of a pattern that does not name the actor and focuses on the resulting state. You can understand it meaning literally "(someone) put it and it is (still in that state)."

It's challenging to translate this sentence in a natural way that preserves the verb "put." Some candidates are:

  • A book has been put on top of the desk.
  • A book is put on top of the desk.
  • There is a book put on top of the desk.

Most commonly, however, "put" just never makes in into the English. I think in English, if a book is on a desk, we assume someone must have put it there, so it feels bizarrely precise to specify that this did indeed happen. Most naturally, it's just "There is a book on top of the desk." In my parlance, "put" gets glossed out.

  • Have you looked into "captures the spirit"?
    – John Feltz
    Dec 19, 2016 at 20:29
  • Could you say that the English translation is a simplified version of the Japanese original?
    – Hank
    Dec 19, 2016 at 20:40
  • 2
    Something is "lost in translation"? Is there a specific phrase you're thinking of that you can share?
    – BruceWayne
    Dec 19, 2016 at 21:21
  • Yes, examples please. It’s difficult to understand how a translation could accurately capture the meaning and intent while losing certain details that you feel are important enough to ask about here.
    – Jim
    Dec 20, 2016 at 4:01
  • 1
    This sort of thing is done in some automated systems and is called gisting. I would prefer just to say "provide the gist of the translated material".
    – Polymath
    Dec 20, 2016 at 19:04

2 Answers 2


If the aim of translation is to provide as accurate as possible a rendition in the target language as the original in propositional meaning, pragmatic overtones, cultural references and so on, then it's probably expected that a translator wouldn't set out to deliberately eliminate an element from the translation. But I see from the example that there are cases in which you would want to. In any case, this might explain why there isn't an existing term (if indeed there isn't)

Perhaps there's scope to coin a term or at least co-opt an existing term. In phonology there's a concept of extrametricality, which is where (crudely) the stress assignment ignores a syllable in words of certain lengths (if stress is assigned in two-syllabled feet, left-to-right, for example, then the last syllable of a word with an odd-number of syllables might be extrametricated). I often use extrametricated to refer to the deliberate act of ignoring something from consideration (perhaps because it skews results or is irrelevant), but on reflection, maybe my interlocutors have no idea what I'm talking about!

Another candidate might be jettisoned, which to me implies volitional dropping of something for a strategic purpose, like saving fuel in the literal sense of the word.

Or you could take the lost in translation idiom and add agency to create dropped in translation, though I suppose drop can be just as non-volitional as in I dropped the ball on that one. Maybe there's a better term in English than drop that implies agency – something like to put down or leave.


You seem to be havering between gloss (in the sense of glossed-out or glossed-over) and lost in translation.

The latter seems, however, to imply that part of the meaning has gone missing. You could, perhaps, boldly start a movement to popularise the phrase to lose in translation, since what you are really doing, of course, does not involve accidentally losing any part of the meaning, only intentionally omitting non-essentials. To me, the sense of what you are talking about seems more akin to paraphrasing.

My experience is pretty restricted, since the only languages I have qualifications in are English and French, but it does seem from my very limited acquaintance with Japanese that the gulf between it and English is far greater than that between French and English. For instance, English derives a certain proportion of its vocabulary from Norman French, and both languages derive a certain amount of their idiomatic terms from a common reference source, namely Medieval church-latin in the Bible.

There are many occasions where French will translate into English literally, and be quite understandable, even though the result sounds horrible. It is rarely good practice to provide a literal translation therefore. To do so makes you sound like a cod-Frenchman in a tv situation comedy, playing for laughs.

Typically, the best solution is to re-order the sentence so that it sounds more natural to an English or American audience, and drop those bits of the sentence which the French have a peculiar but incomprehensible passion for including, even though they don't appear to mean anything! It's thus vital to employ a non-literal translation, using a bit of strategic paraphrasing.

From listening to the mangled English emerging from the Japanese tourist who stopped me in Oxford Street recently to ask directions to Trafalgar Square, I would say it must be tricky for any oriental to avoid sounding like he's doing a comic turn; and I suppose our attempts to speak Japanese must sound equally humorous to them.

For instance, your Japanese example sounds very dodgy, even in all your variations. Why are you saying A book has been put on top of the desk, in various ways, when not only put is unnecessary but also top. Where else could you put it? Not on top? Surely, the sentence A book is on the desk is a perfectly valid translation into English?

What you need to do - sorry, what anyone needs to do - is ideally to deploy Occam's razor: the idea that the simplest possible outcome is necessarily the best one. It is, obviously, possible to overload any sentence with superfluous extra adjectives in order to make its meaning "clearer". But it is probably better practice to go the other way, and translate it by using the razor to cut away all the dead wood in the sentence, to edit it, and so reduce it to an irreducible minimum of meaning - to isolate its core meaning.

Whatever might be the custom in Japan, an English-speaking listener does not need to be told that a book cannot put itself on the desk. Nor does he need a lecture on Newton's first law, to appreciate that gravity will remove the book if not placed on top of the desk. There might be more flowery ways of expressing the facts; but if accuracy is the only yardstick then you ought to aim to edit out the superfluous bits, in order to unambiguously convey only the core meaning. In other words, you'll have to paraphrase it.

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