The Problem of Collocation in Translation

By definition, collocation is the concept of word co-occurrence, where certain words appear predictably next to or within a certain number of words from each other. In corpus linguistics, a collocation is a sequence of words or terms that co-occur more often than would be expected by chance. In phraseology, collocation is a sub-type of phraseme. An example of a phraseological collocation, as propounded by Michael Halliday, is the expression “strong tea”. In other words, a collocation is a familiar grouping of words, especially words that habitually appear together and thereby convey meaning by association. Collocational range refers to the set of items that typically accompany a word. The size of a collocational range is partially determined by a word’s level of specificity and number of meanings. In simpler terms, we can say that collocation can be defined as “the company that words keep”, or it is “a marriage contract between words”.

As a matter of fact, there are two types of collocation. The first one is called “lexical” and the second one is referred to as “grammatical”. As for the lexical collocation, it can be defined as the co-occurrence of nouns, adjectives, verbs or adverbs, such as “strict rules” (rather than rigid), or “he pricked his finger” (rather than pierced or punctured). One more example is when you say in English, “You are a heavy smoker”. What does such a sentence mean in English when the adjective “heavy” collocates with the noun “smoker”? Semantically, it means that you smoke a lot. Therefore, when you come to put such a sentence in another language, let us say, Arabic, what can you say about that? Well, if you translate it literally, the rendered translation would look funny and awkward for the native speaker of the target language text, which is Arabic in this case. Hence, the translator in this case has to manage the translation and give the meaning intended behind saying something like that.

To illustrate the notion or concept of lexical collocation and get a better understanding of it, let us ponder one more example about lexical collocation. We say in English, “Make breakfast/a speech”; however, we can never say “Make a party; rather we should say, “Throw/Organize a party”. We also can say “Get married” or “Catch cold” in English as well. Thus, if we come to put the sentence “Catch cold” in Arabic, for instance, literally, the produced or translated version of this particular sentence would be so funny and awkward. For this reason, the translator should be cautious and wise when he or she comes to do the translation of such lexical collocations to avoid producing funny or unacceptable and awkward types of translations.


As for grammatical collocations, they consist of a noun, or an adjective or a verb, plus a particle (a preposition, an adverb or a grammatical structure such as an infinitive, a gerund, or clause). The following phrases are good examples on grammatical collocations, including at night, extend to, good at, fall for, to be afraid that. These examples are grammatical collocations which are lexicalized as single units whose meanings are formulaic and whose co-occurrence are highly likely. They are sometimes idiomatic, because their meanings do not reflect the meanings of the elements, such as run out of (to reach an end of stock, supplies) or put up with (tolerate). However, there are similar grammatical combinations which do not have such a strong sense of belonging together. To understand this type of collocation better, let us consider the examples below, where we can say that a grammatical collocation is a type of construction where (1) a verb or adjective must be followed by a particular preposition, or (2) a noun must be followed by a particular verb form:


  • depend on — not “depend of”
  • afraid of — not “afraid at”
  • strength to lift it — not “strength lifting it”


Based upon the above examples given on grammatical collocation, the translator should be fully aware of such grammatical structures and the exact function of each so that he or she can render the correct translation of the same.


In conclusion, the best way to learn collocations is through practice because there are no clear rules. The more you look at them, the more familiar they will become. In this context, it is strongly recommended that a comparative study of undergraduate and graduate students’ knowledge of collocations, either lexical, grammatical or both can be an excellent area of further research. Such a comparison may shed light on the causes of grammatical and lexical collocational errors. They can also show the extent to which these types are problematic for translators, where the relevant solutions and suggestions should be proposed to the translators when faced by collocational structures in any given language.