Tricky Challenges Every Translator Faces

We all know being a translator is a demanding job – one that requires understanding not only a language, but the people who speak it, their habits, their culture and the grammar that tags along with all of that. Sometimes it can be confusing and frustrating when dealing with certain challenges which include—but are not limited to—the following:

Structure & Rules
Every language has a defined structure and rules. Translation difficulty lies in a language’s complexity and flexibility- or lack thereof.  For example, in English, our sentences are typically structured Subject-Verb-Object, of SVO. “She loves him” is one example. But this is not the case in all languages. In Japanese, the same sentence would read “She him loves.” In Filipino, the sentence is “Loves she him.”

Frequently, these different structures require translators to add, remove, and rearrange source words to communicate effectively in the target language.

Figurative Language
Let’s cut to the chase. Idiomatic expressions and other figurative language are sprinkled throughout every language on the planet. It is virtually impossible to get through a day without using or hearing a few of those colorful phrases.  These expressions add vibrancy to language, but they also can add headaches to the translators who come across them. Idioms are peculiarly difficult to translate. Ask any linguist or machine translation engine. They certainly have their work cut out for them!

The same happens with sarcasm. Sarcasm’s sharp, biting style of humor usually means the opposite of what is being stated. When translated word-for-word into another language, sarcasm can lose its meaning and lead to misunderstandings.

Publishers sometimes do not limit the number of idiomatic expressions and sarcasm in documents that will eventually be translated. When they insist on keeping potentially confusing idioms and sarcasm, they should indicate to translators that these phrases are necessary or that sarcasm is central to the style of the document. This way, translators will have a chance to avoid literal misunderstandings and can pick the best words or phrases to keep with the theme or tone of the piece. For this, translator need deep cultural familiarity. Without it, it would be hard to find accurate replacement phrases.

Compound Words
Compound words are just two or more words combined together to make one. Sounds simple enough. Yet, the overall meaning may no longer reflect the meaning of the component words. And it doesn’t help that there are three ways to look at compound words.

  1. Straightforward compound words mean what they say. Upstream, watchmaker, and seashore are just that.
  2. Others compound words are less literal. A paperboy is not a young man made of paper. And a greenhouse is not literally green.
  3. Then there are others that seem to have nothing to do with the original words once they become compound words. Butterflies does not mean butter is flying. A deadline usually has nothing to do with death or a line.

The untranslatable
Sometimes a language does not have an exact match for a certain action or object that exists in another language. You may have heard the Danish word “hygge,” for which we don’t have an equivalent word in English.  The closest we get is “cozy,” yet somehow even cozy doesn’t exemplify the exact nuance of what hygge means. Imagine other words with similar issues. Words such as nice, insight, and stuff—while seemingly simple in English— can cause some trouble when trying to find its equivalent in other languages.

Two-Word Verbs
Sometimes a verb and a preposition will take on a separate, specific meaning when used together. Two-word verbs are common in informal English. Hang up, fill up, look up, close up, fill out, break in, and break up are some examples. In many cases, though, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to translate the preposition separately.

Multiple Meanings
The same word may mean multiple things depending on where it’s placed and how it’s used in a sentence. This phenomenon typically follows one of two patterns.

  1. Homonyms – which look and sound alike but are defined differently. For example, you can bolt out the door quickly, bolt the door to keep it shut or see a lightning bolt.
  2. Heteronyms- which look alike but are defined and pronounced differently. Some examples include: They were too close to the door to close it. It is time to present the present. The farm is used to produce produce.

When the best translators are assaulted with these tricky challenges, they still make sure they stay as true to the original document as possible. Never typical, always evolving, these challenges push translators to continually grow in their craft. They just hope maybe not every assignment they encounter is full of these “challenges.”

By Ilona Knudson

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