We Translate On Time

What Makes Translation So Difficult?

July 4th, 2019

At first glance translation might not seem so difficult; however, it becomes apparent that translation is not always easy especially when the languages are not closely related. We might often hear “this word/phrase does not exist” in one language and there is no direct translation, so a parallel phrase has to be used. Here are some reasons why translating can become very complicated. 

 One of the difficulties is polysemy. Polysemy is the coexistence of many possible meanings for a word or phrase. This can pose difficulty in translation because a direct translation might not give an accurate equivalent. Take the English word “get”, it can have multiple meaning depending on the context:

“To get a bus” (take)

“To get the gist” (understand)

To get some food” (buy)

This example shows one verb with many different meanings. In order to understand what the verb means; the context of the sentence or phrase must be understood. This is why translations from a machine can often produce awkward translations as the machine lacks understanding of context. Machine translations are only good for giving the overall meaning or the main idea. The best translations are produced by humans. 

Translation can also be difficult because of cultural differences. Words often reflect the culture and the society that use them. Therefore, words that are able to describe very specific things or emotions might now exist in other languages. For example, the Inuktitut have a far superior ability to distinguish between different types of snow than most languages because of their multiple specific words for snow. 

Translation is culture related. Some concepts are usual in one language, but in another language a lot of effort is needed to find an equivalent. Translators should be familiar with intercultural differences and views. Translators need linguistic, socio-cultural and pragmatic competence of the two languages to translate.

There is associative meaning in languages. For example, colours can have different means between languages. In Brazil, “everything is blue” means “it is okay”; whereas, in English blue usually has a sad or melancholy connotation. Just knowing two languages does not necessary mean you will be able to translate well. Languages often have false cognates. For example, the word "translation" itself.  In Russian, трансляция (translation) means broadcasting (as in TV). Thus, translators have to be careful to render phrases appropriately. 

Translators who translate into their target language have more natural knowledge of the various elements like proverbs, idioms, metaphors, semantics, syntax, morphology etc. than those who translate into a second language.



by Joshua Binfor