Is Translation into English difficult? Hardest Languages and Files to translate
Why is professional translation so difficult?
You’ve probably seen the latest hilariously bad translation and wondered how they could get it so wrong. What’s so hard about translation? Why can’t you swap the words out for the same words in another language?
What are the challenges of translation?
There’s an infinite number of ways that a translation could be difficult. That’s why for the most part we advise against using machine translation or unqualified translators (like your colleague who also speaks Spanish). Professional translators are specialists in their chosen field and will be trained to look out for these problems and will know the best ways to solve them.
Here is a list of some of the main issues that a translator might come up against:
The difficulty of translating from one language to another
This section will focus on the ‘wordy’ ways that a translation might be difficult.
• Equivalence (or lack thereof)
If you had to explain translation to an alien, you might say something along the lines of ‘finding the equivalent words in another language’. You probably already know that there isn’t a perfect equivalent for those long romantic words like ‘Hygge’ or ‘Schadenfreude’. But equivalence between words happens even less often than you think, which is why we have clichés like ‘lost in translation’.
It’s easy to think you have the same word, but the effect of the word overall is completely different. For example, if you’re translating an email into German and you need to address some as ‘Miss’ you should avoid the word that Google tells you is equivalent – ‘Fräulein’ – as this is quite antiquated and could come across as offensive. Thanks to phenomena like double meanings, connotations or changes in the way that we use language, it’s more common that words mean slightly different things than their ‘direct’ translation.
• False friends
False friends are when two words seem like they would be direct translations of each other but mean something completely different. They can easily catch a translator out if they are not paying close attention to the text. As an English speaker, you might read ‘slim’ in Dutch and assume you know that it means ‘slim’ in English, when it means ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent’.
You might describe somebody as embarrassed in Spanish and use ‘embarazada’ which would be unfortunate, as it means ‘pregnant’. False friends are everywhere, and while Google Translate might catch them, an untrained translator could easily fall into their trap!
Differences of culture
This section will focus on the ways that differences in culture can affect translation. Any professional translator will tell you that culture is one of the biggest things to influence translation decisions. A lot of our language is rooted in culture; it tells us how to interpret things, which metaphors and similes to use, and what to expect from certain types of interactions. It’s a big deal! Read on for a few examples of ways that cultural differences might make translation more difficult:
• Clichés, metaphors and proverbs
This kind of imagery tends to be very firmly rooted in culture, which can make it very difficult to translate. For example, if you had to translate ‘when pigs fly’ into French (meaning that something will never happen) you might use their similarly ridiculous proverb: ‘quand les poules auront les dents’ (when hens have teeth). It’s lucky for the translator that the target language uses a something similar to express the same idea. But what about if the source text is accompanied by a picture of a pig? Or is a tagline for an airline trying to advertise their impossibly cheap prices? The translator would then have to work their magic and use a sort of creative translation that many language professionals call transcreation.
• Sarcasm and humour
Humour is famously difficult to translate, partly because sometimes the difference in language doesn’t allow for the joke to be translated, but also because sometimes a different culture means that even if the joke could be translated, it still wouldn’t get a laugh. This is also why localisation is important – if they were to translate the humour or sarcasm of a Brit into another language, it’s likely to come across as a lot more offensive. That’s why translators always must think about how their work will be interpreted.
The importance of context
Any translator will tell you that they absolutely need context – when we write or speak, a lot of the meaning we create doesn’t come from the choice of words, but from the wider context of what we’re talking about, what we’re thinking about, and what people are expecting from us. Context is important to understanding a text.
If we use Dutch as an example again, ‘nicht’ can mean both female cousin or niece. To understand how to translate it, the translator must read between the lines to understand. That’s why machine translation often fails – it can’t use context. And professional translators can’t do without it.
Context also refers to the type of text and translation. The decisions that a translator makes often depend on the overall purpose of the text and how it is supposed to be interpreted. Each text type has its own difficulties:
• Medical, legal and technical translations
Although each of these specialisms requires intense training for the translator, they do share some qualities that make translation difficult. The vocabulary is often highly specific and highly complex, which can make the translator’s job very difficult, and the cost of error is high. With ongoing medical research, there are always new medicines and procedures of which the translator must be aware. Legal translation might change slightly more slowly but can be difficult to translate due to differences in the legal systems of each country.
• Commercial, marketing and business translation
Marketing texts often include humour, slogans and catchy phrases, which are notoriously hard to translate. There are very few advertising campaigns that can be easily translated into different languages without any changes, and when this happens, that’s when we hear about those funny translation fails. It’s difficult to make sure that marketing copy is appropriate for all regions that share a particular language. Brand perception matters. It takes a professional translator to make sure that your brand makes a good impression in your target market.
• Literary translation
As with most types of translation, the devil is in the detail. Literary translators of novels must take care to replicate the style of writing and the tone of voice. In most cases, the literary translator has to strike a balance between retaining the exotic flavour of the source text and appealing to readers of the target language. Translators of poetry have a famously hard job dealing with the connotations, rhyming patterns and rhythm of the text.
• Audio-visual translation
Audio-visual translation encompasses dubbing and subtitling. These forms of translation involve a lot of technical restrictions for the translator to deal with. They could include character counts, time limits and shot changes. The audio-visual translator will often find that these restrictions mean that a translation of all the original dialogue isn’t possible, so they must figure out which parts are the most important. Unlike other written forms of translation, they cannot offer any explanations, nor do their audience have a lot of time to consider the translation and what it might mean – it must be clear and effective straight away.
What is the hardest language to translate to English?
There are thousands of living languages in the world, and even more dialects, so to say definitively which is the hardest to translate into English would cause some arguments. To put it simply, the more differences there are between two languages, the more opportunities for difficulty when translating between them. These differences could be linguistic or cultural and they’re often a combination of the two.
Many tend to agree that Asian languages, such as Korean, Japanese and Thai are difficult to translate into English. There are more cultural differences with Western, English-speaking countries, and the differences in the language structures could cause problems for the translator.
For example, Japanese sentence structure is very different from English sentence structure, so a translator might have to completely reorganise the way ideas are presented in a translation. Thai does not use capitalisation, nor are the words separated by spaces; this means that a Thai to English translator needs to have a crystal-clear understanding of the context to differentiate between words.
Another language that is often said to be difficult to translate into English is Finnish – the grammar rules are completely different and the spoken version varies greatly from the written version of the language. Another one is Arabic: this is one of the most dialect-rich languages in the world, which makes localization very important – the translator must be aware of the regions which they are translating into and out of. Some Arabic letters are written four different ways, depending on where they come in the sentence, and vowels are not written down at all – this is common among languages such as Hebrew, Aramaic and Maltese as well. These reasons do not make translation impossible, but rather show you just how skilled a good translator must be to navigate these obstacles!
To conclude, yes, translation is difficult. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible – professional translators are highly qualified individuals. Many have at least a bachelor’s degree in Translation Studies or their chosen languages, along with an interest in language translation and their chosen specialist field. Translators are taught to look out for these problems, and the best ways to solve them, so that they can create the best translated texts for success in your target market. At Planet Languages we work with a wide variety of talented, professional translators. We require them to have high levels of education and only translate into their native languages, so that the translated texts always read fluently.
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