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Translation’s Biggest Challenges!

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Translating requires a deep understanding of both grammar and culture. Linguists do not only need to know the rules of the language but also to understand the culture and habits of the people who speak it. However, even for the most experienced professionals, there are always challenges to be faced during translation.

Language Structure

All languages have a specific structure and set of rules. This directs and explains the complexity of any translation. A simple sentence in English has a subject, verb and object, often in that order; “she eats pizza” for example. However, not every language shares this structure. Farsi typically follows a sequence of subject, object, then verb, whilst in Arabic, subject pronouns actually become part of the verb itself.

As a result, translators frequently need to add, remove and rearrange source words to effectively communicate in the target language.

Moreover, a text can become demanding to translate when the author has used too many figures of speech, meaning a good translator must also be a good reader by definition.

Idioms and Expressions

For native speakers, there is no problem when it comes to understanding and using certain phrases that have a meaning only when used together in a particular context.

Idiomatic expressions are unique to each language. They are part of the culture and as a result their word-to-word translation often makes no sense. These word combinations can have a different meaning than the meaning of the words in the expression and therefore make them harder to translate

Terms with Multiple Meanings & Compound Words

Compound words are two or more words that when combined, give a specific and unique meaning that is different from the literal meaning of the initial individual words.

It’s usually best to think of them in terms of three separate groups.

The first group of compound words (closed compounds) mean exactly what they say. “Airport,” “keyboard” and “notebook” are some examples. The second group of compound words mean only half of what they say — examples include six-pack and mass-produced.

The third group of compound words have meanings that have nothing to do with the meanings of the individual words involved. For instance, “deadline” and “butterfly”.

Words That Don’t Have an Equivalent

This is indeed a very common challenge faced by translation specialists worldwide.

There are cases when a word has no equivalent in the language into which the translation is needed. This usually happens within the legal industry due to differing legislation or within technical texts and instructions where many key terms only have an English form. 

Words Do Not Match

A language may not have an exact match for a certain action or object that exists in another language. In American English, for instance, some homeowners have what they describe as a “guest room.” It is simply a space where their invited guests can sleep for the night.

This concept is common in other languages as well, but often expressed rather differently. Greeks describe it with the single word “ksenonas” while their Italian counterparts employ a three-word phrase “camera per gliospiti” instead.

Multiple Meanings

The same word may have multiple meanings depending on the context, the surrounding words and the way it is placed in a sentence.

There are homonyms, i.e. scale (of a fish), a (weighing) scale and the verb scale (to climb) which look and sound alike but have different meanings. There are also heteronyms, i.e. ‘I drove down the windy road on a windy day’, which look alike but have different meanings and pronunciation.

Sarcasm & Author’s Opinion

Sarcasm is a mode of satirical wit where the meaning is usually the opposite of the literal phrasing. A good translator needs to understand the meaning and the author’s perspective before embarking on a translation, as a word-to-word translation can often cause misunderstandings. This is mostly found in literature (notably poems) and journalism (opinion articles).

Translation is more than just transporting words or sentences from one language to another. It involves the translation of feelings, emotions and thoughts. Although the task can be frustrating and pose a challenge to the linguist, a successful text can be produced through overcoming the language and cultural barriers.

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