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The source of the word source is the same whether it applies to a text or a river

What are source and target texts?

Over the coming weeks, months and years, as I delight you with nuggets of information from the translation world, you’re going to see one recurring theme in particular (beyond the vast area that is just “translation”). That theme will be translation as a profession.

I’ll delve into that much further in later articles, but I think it’s important to introduce this terminology from the outset. If there’s one thing that pops up in every profession it’s terminology and, if ever there were a vital set of terminology for translation, “source texts” and “target texts” are it.

Reading this, you’re not only going to learn what the translation industry means by source or target text but, crucially, that it’s more than just terminology – in fact, it’s arguably the very basis upon which translation is founded.


Everyone knows the best way to begin an article is with a dictionary definition (that’s only slightly tongue-in-cheek), so here are the definitions of source:

  • “The fountain-head or origin of a river or stream; the spring or place from which a flow of water takes its beginning.”
    • “The origin, or original stock, of a person, family, etc.”
    • “The originating cause or substance of some material thing or physical agency.”

And here they are for target:

  • “Something aimed at or to be aimed at.”
    • “An amount set as a (minimum) objective, esp. in fund-raising; a result (i.e. a figure, sum of money, etc.) aimed at. on target, on the right track, as forecast. Hence loosely, any goal which one strives to achieve.”

If you hadn’t already worked it out, then, source refers to the text you start with, and target to the text you end up with; the source is the input, the target the output. If you have an Italian text and you want to translate it into English, the Italian is the source (or ST) and the English translation is the target (or TT).

More than just a text

We then begin to see source and target applied to other nouns: you can have the S/T language (SL, TL), the S/T culture (SC, TC), and so on. Why?

The further we get into translation theory, the more you’re going to read about how we’re not just dealing with a language, but with its implied international, national or local nuance.

That can be less applicable for Italian – or rather, less obvious – than other languages, such as “Spanish”. The reason I use inverted commas is that you could have an source text in Spanish that comes from any one of a huge number of source cultures. And what about the target for English language? Is it going into UK English, US, or…? That might change the vocab you use, the translation choices you make.

In practice

The nature of translation, and of sources and targets, leads to a very common layout for translation practice: translation software (Computer Assisted Translation or CAT tools, such as SDL Trados Studio or Memsource) almost exclusively lays the source on the left and the target on the right; for short texts in which I often choose to use a word processor over CAT tools, you’ll likely see me lay the two texts alongside each other in the same way.

MateCat is one of the many CAT tools that place the source and target texts in parallel columns
Figure 2 The MateCat Tool editing page.jpg by Silvio T (CC BY-SA 4.0)


Given the fundamental nature of the source and target concept in translation, they’re two terms that crop up an awful lot in the original: hence the importance of a) understanding them and b) being able to shorten them!