Dedicated to bringing together research on indirect translation

Indirect translation is a translation from a translated version, or multiple translated versions, of the ultimate source text. For instance, if a text in Arabic is translated into Portuguese via English the result is what we call an indirect translation.

This translation practice is a long-standing reality of intercultural exchanges, especially those exchanges involving the so-called small languages (e.g. Catalan, Czech, Danish). Indirect translation remains a common practice in various areas of today's society (e.g. machine and audio-visual translation, community and conference interpreting) and its use has become even more pronounced with the successive enlargements of the European Union, which led to an increase in working languages and the subsequent need for editing documents from the linguae francae or hub languages (Gambier 2003).

In Translation Studies indirect translation is sometimes referred to by the abbreviations IT or ITr and is also known as double, intermediate, mediated, mixed, pivot, relay(ed) or second (third, etc.)-hand translation. Indirect translations are sometimes called retranslations (e.g. Bauer 1999, Gambier 1994), but this term is more frequently used to describe multiple translations of the same source text into one target language (Koskinen and Paloposki 2010). Indirect translation is opposed to direct translation, which is a translation made directly from the ultimate source text, without a mediating text.

Examples of indirect translation

-     In audio-visual translation

In the TV show Breaking Bad (2010, S3E3), the Tortuga character speaks Spanish. The Polish subtitles (fansubs) are made from the English mediating subtitles.

-     In translations of literature

Until the 1990s Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment had been translated into European Portuguese via French rather than directly from Russian (Boulogne 2015).

Another telling example is the first Russian translation of One Thousand and One Nights, made by Alexey Filatov in 1763–1771. It was based on a French translation produced by Antoine Galland in 1717. Later Russian translations were also based on European translations. For instance, the translation by Yulia Doppelmayr (1889–1890) was based on Galland’s text and the translation by Lyudmila Shelgunova (1894) was based on an English translation by Edward William Lane.

-     In translations of religious texts

A direct translation of the Qur'an into Latin was made in 1142-1143; many indirect translations were later made from that Latin version into European vernaculars.

The English Bible (c.  1385) overseen by John Wycliffe used the Latin Vulgate as its source text. The Vulgate derived from St. Jerome's Bible (c. 400), itself a Latin translation of Greek sources.

-     Conference interpreting (relay interpreting)

When a conference delegate is speaking Danish and is to be interpreted into English and Czech where no Danish-Czech interpreter is available, the Czech output may be mediated via the English “pivot”. Relay interpreting was also common in former Eastern Bloc countries, with Russian as the pivot (mediating) language.

Advantages and disadvantages of indirect translation

Indirect translation is heavily loaded with negative connotations (Ringmar 2012) and is often considered as a poor copy of a copy, which necessarily entails a loss of detail with each successive passage through the process (as in the Xerox effect, see Landers 2001). A telling example of this attitude is the recommendation by UNESCO (1976), which suggests that indirect translation should be used “only where absolutely necessary”.

However, research has shown that recourse to indirect translation can also lead to quite positive results. To begin with, various researchers argue that had it not been for this practice, certain world literature classics from peripheral cultures would not have been disseminated in languages of so-called weak diffusion (or, at the very least, their inclusion would have been delayed) (Shuttleworth and Cowie 1996, Landers 2001). Take, for instance, the case of the Portuguese reception of Russian classics: had they not been translated via French, they would have become available to the Portuguese-reading public only as late as the 1990s (Pięta 2014). Indirect translation may therefore be the most efficient, and sometimes the only, means of inclusion for cultural products from peripheral cultures. Also, indirect translation has been claimed to be profitable to translation companies and clients alike, as it offers an opportunity to economize on translation expenses (e.g. it is often cheaper than translating directly from a small language) and to minimize the risk of translation being rejected (by commissioning a translation from a small language filtered through a larger and more prestigious language translation companies tend to maximize the chances that the translation lives up to client expectations (Pięta and Bueno Maia 2015).


Bauer, Wolfgang. 1999. "The Role of Intermediate Languages in Translations from Chinese into German." In De l’un au multiple. Traductions du chinois vers les langues européennes. Translations from Chinese to European Languages [One into many: Translations from Chinese to European languages], edited by Viviane Alleton and Michael Lackner, 19–32. Paris: Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme.

Boulogne, Pieter. 2015. "Europe’s Conquest of the Russian Novel: The Pivotal Role of France and Germany."  Special Issue of IberoSlavica on "Translation in Iberian-Slavonic Cultural Exchanges":167-191.

Gambier, Yves. 1994. "La retraduction, retour et détour [Retranslation, revival and detour]."  Meta: Journal des traducteurs 39 (3):413-417. doi: 10.7202/002799ar.

Gambier, Yves. 2003. "Working with Relay: An Old Story and a New Challenge." In Speaking in Tongues: Language across Contexts and Users, edited by Luis  Pérez González, 47–66. València: Universitat de València.

Koskinen, Kaisa, and Outi Paloposki. 2010. "Retranslation." In Handbook of Translation Studies, edited by Yves Gambier and Luc van Doorslaer, 294–298. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Landers, Clifford E. 2001. "Indirect Translation." In Literary Translation: A Practical Guide, 130-131. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Pięta, Hanna. 2014. "What Do (We Think) We Know about Indirectness in Literary Translation? A Tentative Review of the State-of-the-art and Possible Research Avenues." In Traducció indirecta en la literature catalana, edited by Ivan Garcia Sala, Diana Sanz Roig and Bożena Zaboklicka, 15-34. Lleida: Punctum.

Pięta, Hanna, and Rita Bueno Maia. 2015. "Integrating Indirect Translation into the Academic Education of Future Generations of Translators across Europe: A Lisbon Model." Translating Europe Forum, Brussels, European Commission / Directorate General for Translation.

Ringmar, Martin. 2012. "Relay Translation." In Handbook of Translation Studies, edited by Yves Gambier and Luc van Doorslaer, 141-144. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Shuttleworth, Mark, and Moira Cowie. 1997. "Indirect Translation." In Dictionary of Translation Studies. Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing.

UNESCO. 1976. Recommendation on the Legal Protection of Translators and Trans-lations and the Practical Means to Improve the Status of Translators.

Source: Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, "Indirect Translation."

First release (January 2016), authored by Hanna Pięta, Rita Bueno Maia, Zsófia Gombár, Marta Pacheco Pinto and Alexandra Assis Rosa.