Translation ambiguity in and out of context

Anat Prior, Shuly Wintner, Brian Macwhinney, Alon Lavie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We compare translations of single words, made by bilingual speakers in a laboratory setting, with contextualized translation choices of the same items, made by professional translators and extracted from parallel language corpora. The translation choices in both cases show moderate convergence, demonstrating that decontextualized translation probabilities partially reflect bilinguals life experience regarding the conditional distributions of alternative translations. Lexical attributes of the target word differ in their ability to predict translation probability: form similarity is a stronger predictor in decontextualized translation choice, whereas word frequency and semantic salience are stronger predictors for context-embedded translation choice. These findings establish the utility of parallel language corpora as important tools in psycholinguistic investigations of bilingual language processing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)93-111
Number of pages19
JournalApplied Psycholinguistics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2011

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors thank Leonid Spektor and Giora Unger for programming assistance, Dr. Yuval Nov for statistical assistance, and Wouter Duyck and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on a previous version of the manuscript. The first author was provided funding by postdoctoral support (NRSA F32HD049255). This work was partially supported by NSF Grant SBE-0354420 to the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center and by Grant 2007241 from the United States–Israel Binational Science Foundation.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • General Psychology


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