Translation techniques: compensation

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen the following tweet:
This was a reference to the following passage:

Gluteus maximus weakness causes poor biomechanics and can contribute to knee injuries. In other words: If your ass is weak, you’ll pay with your knees.

I wasn’t comfortable with a literal translation of “ass”, which could have been cul, and before you wonder, it’s not because I’m a prude. I just think that cul is slightly more coarse than the more innocuous “ass”, and I didn’t think it was appropriate in the context of the magazine. I’ve been translating similar article magazines for four years, and it really didn’t work for me. Sometimes, a translator has to follow her instinct. So I rejected cul, but I still needed to account for the “we’re guys talking to guys about training in the gym” tone of the sentence, which “ass” conveyed so well.
Thankfully, there is a translation technique called compensation. It allows the beleaguered translation professional to transfer a stylistic difficulty into another section of the text. So I upped the language register and expanded my translation of “ass” a notch (muscles du postérieur). This translation is much more technical, which is fine, as the article is aimed at fitness fanatics and contains a lot of detailed information, but it lost all its slangy flavour. I really wanted to keep it, so I transferred to the end of the sentence. I translated “you’ll pay with your kness” with ce sont vos genoux qui trinquent, literally “to drink to something”, but which, in its familiar slant, means “to pay the price”. This way, I hope to keep the familiarity and jocularity of the original. This is the translation I came to:

Une faiblesse au niveau du grand fessier peut causer des problèmes biomécaniques et contribuer aux blessures du genou. Autrement dit, quand les muscles du postérieur sont faibles, ce sont les genoux qui trinquent.

By |2016-10-18T15:48:45+00:00December 6th, 2010|Technical corner|7 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Nathalie Reis December 6, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    Indeed, Celine, we are sometimes faced with this kind of problem and I think you solved it beautifully. I would have been tempted to go for a slightly more familiar tone with something like: Si vous n’avez pas les fesses en béton, ce sont vos genoux qui trinquent.

  2. Oliver Lawrence December 6, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    Nice post :)! I find compensation to be one of the most creative, and therefore satisfying, of translation techniques. It implicitly draws attention to the fact that what we are translating, especially when it comes to journalism, marketing and creative material, for example, is a whole text and not just a series of compartmentalised segments.

  3. Marian Dougan December 12, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    I wonder if Google translate could do that? Doubt it, somehow.

  4. Oleg Kuzin January 18, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    I like “Si vous n’avez pas les fesses en béton, ce sont vos genoux qui trinquent” because the overall tone of the passage is better reflected. Formal, technical description followed by a layman’s description. A good exercice is to line up the two texts side by side and the equivalences will be immediately emphasized.

  5. Paul Sutton January 25, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    Nice example, excellently explained. But I’d say that this “compensation” operates, to varying degrees, throughout any good translation. It permeates a translation. Sometimes you get a neat illustrative example like this one, but I reckon good translators do this kind of thing all the time, instinctively. Why? Because you rarely find exact equivalents, either stylistic or semantic, in any discrete chunk of text. Both style and meaning (which are actually part of the same thing anyway) are distributed throughout a text.

  6. céline January 25, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    I totally agree with you Paul. We do it all the time, but I thought this was quite a neat and tidy little example to share with everyone.

  7. Jonathan Goldberg January 26, 2011 at 5:27 am

    For an articl;e about President Obama’s use of “ass”, see

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