Collocations or the key to linguistic naturalness

take collocations

One of the first concepts you are taught in Translation Studies is that of “collocation”. A collocation is a sequence of words that are commonly used together. In fact they co-occur more often that would be expected by chance. Collocations are partially or fully fossilized co-occurrences, which have reached this state through repeated context-dependent use. An example of collocation is the expression “the gates of heaven”. While the sequence “the doors of heaven” is equally correct from a syntactic point of view, most English speakers would consider the later awkward at the very least. Now, you might wonder about Bob Dylan’s song “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” . Shouldn’t the title “knocking on heaven’s gate”? Well, a possible answer is a collocation again: the verb “know” always typically occurs together with “door”, not with “gate”.

Native speakers will intuitively know that “fast train” and “fast food” sound “good”, but that “quick train” or quick food” sound “bad”; or that “quick shower” and “quick meal” sound natural whereas “fast shower” or “fast meal” does not. If we are foreign language students, no rule will tell us that this or that word goes together with that or that one. Therefore, we will have to learn them by heart or by exposing ourselves to the context long enough to gain a quasi-intuitive knowledge of the language. Collocations are key to writing and speaking natural-sounding English – or any other language for that matter, and thus mastering them are crucial to any good translation.

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