What’s the hardest element of a language to translate? 


In this month’s translation industry updates, we’ll be pondering one of the translation conundrums that is discussed the most, and yet remains the most complicated. What indeed IS the most difficult aspect of a language to translate?


Thinking in terms of grammatical structures, two of the most obvious areas of difference between languages are in gender markers and degrees of familiarity. Some languages, such as Finnish, have no gender at all, even for pronouns, which makes such languages difficult to translate into languages which do mark gender if there is no context about who the genderless pronouns are referring to. Other languages, such as Japanese, have many different layers of formality, and this is something which can be difficult to render in a target language that has fewer, or no, variations on terms like ‘you’.


Sentence structure, word order and sentence length also tend to vary considerably between languages, with some being much more flexible in this sense than others. For example, in Hungarian the sentence structure is generally such that the most important information in a sentence comes closest to the beginning, but other than that the word order is flexible. This means that a sentence like ‘Te magyarul tanulsz Budapesten?’ would mean something closer to ‘Is it Hungarian that you study in Budapest?’, yet the sentence would most likely be translated as simply ‘Do you study Hungarian in Budapest?’, which reads more naturally but loses the sense of emphasis.


Other languages have completely unique structures, such as the Turkish ‘story’ past tense, which is used to recall events that the speaker is aware of but hasn’t experienced first hand. This means that if you say that ‘Yağmur merdivenlerden düştü’, you saw Yağmur fall down the stairs with your own eyes, whereas ‘Yağmur merdivenlerden düşmüş’ means that you know that it happened, but didn’t see it yourself. Since few, if any, languages have a direct equivalent to this structure, the information about whether the event was witnessed directly is lost, unless we add an additional phrase to try to capture the ‘story’ component, such as ‘Apparently’, or ‘They say that’.


Then there’s the question of inclusivity and exclusivity. Many, but not all, languages distinguish between singular and plural forms of ‘you’, and some languages also distinguish between forms of ‘we’, with one term being used to describe ‘me, you, and others’, and another being used to describe ‘me and others, but not you’. In the case of singular versus plural ‘you’, the difference can sometimes be clear from the context, but it seems that misrepresenting the term ‘we’, when translating from a language that doesn’t make such distinctions, could be difficult to do, and could have negative implications if handled incorrectly. 


And all of the above only covers the structural elements of a language. Equally tricky are the more cultural aspects. One huge challenge is finding a way of translating words that are very specific to a certain language or culture, either because they refer to a geographical or environmental term that is local to that part of the world, or because they refer to a concept that’s more common to that culture’s way of thinking. It’s widely believed, and now discredited, that the Inuit have vast numbers of words for snow, but it is actually fairly common for one language to have more words to describe terms in a particular category than others, and if you’re translating from a source language which uses general terms, and into a target language which uses specific terms, it can then be more difficult to know which is the best option to pick. 


Idiomatic phrases can also be hugely challenging, and indeed we often take for granted just how many concepts from our own language are impossible to translate in literal terms into others. A famous example in English is ‘raining cats and dogs’, which is unlikely to have direct equivalents elsewhere, but every single language has its own unique sayings. The Spanish term ‘sobremesa’, which literally means ‘above table’, refers to lingering around a table and talking after a meal has finished, but not every language necessarily has an equivalent term or even an equivalent concept. Likewise, the Dutch term ‘uitwaaien’, which refers to clearing your head by going outside and walking in the wind, might not make sense to somebody not living in a densely populated northern European coastal country. 


On that same note, regionalisms are also very difficult to transpose into another language, which means that if we’re reading a book where a British character is speaking to an Australian character, to give an example involving English, it’s difficult to know how to capture those characters’ identities when their words are in another language. Indeed, even the Harry Potter books had to be ‘translated’ from British into American English, which raises the even bigger question of how to translate the magical yet culturally specific world of Hogwarts for other foreign audiences. 


And then there’s possibly the most challenging element of all: humour. Humour varies to a great degree between places, as do notions of acceptability. Since a lot of humour revolves around taboos, something that is mildly risqué in one culture might be unbelievably offensive in another, while in other cases a different audience might genuinely not find the same concepts funny. On a more grammatical level, any type of humour that relies on word plays is notoriously hard to capture when the equivalent doesn’t exist in the target language, and it can be difficult to really know how to replicate any kind of subtle humour in such a way that it still makes sense to a new target audience. 


In light of all of the above points, the question is then, how do we compensate? Luckily, most translation barriers can be bridged to some extent with the right degree of imagination, resourcefulness and cultural sensitivity, which is why having a solid knowledge of the source and target languages and cultures can go a long way towards maintaining some of the nuances of the original text.


But don’t take our word for it – we’d like to know your thoughts too. If you’re a translator, which aspects of your source language(s) do you find it the most difficult to convey? 


Share your ideas in the comments, and we hope you enjoyed this month’s updates. 


Until the next time! 





The Inuit Don't Have 100 Words For Snow, So Why Does The Myth Persist?



Fluent in Turkish

8 Past Tenses in Turkish (with conjugations)




La Sobremesa: the Spanish Art of Dinner Conversation



New York Times

Harry Potter, Minus a Certain Flavour 



Washington Post

Forget hygge, it’s time for uitwaaien