Contrary to popular belief, being a translator is not as easy as people think.
I mean, it’s not just about knowing two or more languages and typing words in a second language on your keyboard.
It’s about understanding and conveying meaning, culture, and context across different types of communication. It’s about being creative but still remaining accurate. It’s about handling ever-changing technology. It’s about dealing with deadlines and client demands. 🤯
In this article, we will explore some of the most common challenges faced by professional translators. We will also share a few tips and resources that can help you overcome these challenges and improve your translation skills. 🧩 🎯 🪀
🛠️ Language structure
One of the first challenges is translating language structure. Different languages have different ways of organizing words and sentences.
For example, some languages have a fixed word order, while others are flexible. Some languages have gender and number agreement, others don’t. Some languages have articles and prepositions, while others use cases and postpositions.
These differences can pose problems for translators who have to adapt the structure of the source language to the target language without losing or changing the meaning.
For example, how would you translate a sentence like “The dog sat on the mat” into a language with no articles, such as Russian or Chinese; no prepositions, like Japanese (though they do have postpositions); or a different word order (SVO vs. SOV)?
Or how would you translate a sentence like “He loves her” into a language that has no gender distinction in pronouns, such as Slavic or other Indo-European languages? 👨🏻🦰 💘 👩🏻🦱
To overcome these challenges, translators need a profound knowledge of the grammar and syntax of both languages, and resort to strategies such as reordering, adding, deleting, or replacing words or whole sentences. They also must be aware of the style and tone to choose the most appropriate structure for both the purpose and the audience.
🛠️ Idioms and expressions
These are figurative meanings that are different from the literal meaning. 🤓
For example, “to kick the bucket” means “to die” for the British, and “to break a leg” means “good luck” for the entertainment industry. Idioms and expressions are often culture specific, and reflect the values, beliefs, and traditions of a certain group.
Imagine using “kick the bucket” when translating a eulogy into English! This would be quite ridiculous or even rude. And if translated literally into a second language, kicking an actual bucket. 😅
Imagine, as interpreter, inadvertently translating “break a leg” literally into a second language. Quite an aggressive remark for a “victim” about go up on stage!
While expressions like “missing the boat” can be easily perceived as missing an opportunity even when translated literally, others aren’t remotely understandable.
Here are a few examples of expressions that can’t be taken literally:
- to spill the beans – disclosing a secret
- raining cats and dogs – raining heavily
- piece of cake – very easy
- let the cat out of the bag – to reveal a secret
- cutting corners – doing something poorly in haste
- hit the sack – going to sleep
- bite the bullet – accepting something inevitable
To overcome these challenges, translators must be familiar with the culture and context of both languages and be careful not to use literal translations that can sound absurd or funny in the target language.
But translating idioms and expressions can be tricky even if you are proficient in the source language. A good professional will use several strategies, such as finding an equivalent idiom or expression, explaining the meaning in plain words, using a metaphor or a simile, or omitting the idiom or expression altogether since finding an equivalent or a paraphrase in the target that conveys the same meaning and effect as the source isn’t always easy peasy!
🛠️ Compound words
“Watermelon,” “hotdog,” “fireworks,” “blackout” and “bookworm” are compound words in English. Compound words are common in many languages, especially Germanic languages such as German, Dutch, and Swedish.
For example, let’s take the German word Schadenfreude. 😈
Schaden means “damage” and freude means “joy,” and the compound word means “pleasure derived from someone else’s misfortune.” How do you translate such a wicked word into a language that has no equivalent? 🤔
To overcome these challenges, translators need to be familiar with the meaning and usage of compound words in both languages and employ strategies such as using hyphens or spaces to separate the components, finding an equivalent sentence or an explanation, or even creating a new compound word in the target language and using it between quotation marks.
Most importantly, they must be careful not to use literal translations, as we’ve seen how confusing or ridiculous it can be. 🤭
🛠️ Two-word verbs or phrasal verbs
Phrasal verbs, also referred to as “compound verbs,” are two-word verbs formed by combining a verb and an adverb or a preposition, or both, changing its original meaning.
Any of these combinations is more than just part of the syntax of a sentence; it’s a complete semantic unit.
Phrasal verbs like “look up,” “take off,” and “get along” are common in many languages, especially Latin languages such as French, Spanish, and Italian, but are especially prevalent in English.
Translating them can be tricky for translators who have to find an equivalent verb or phrase in the target language that conveys the same meaning.
For example, how do you translate a phrasal verb like “look up” that means searching for information when a literal translation would be, literally, looking upward? 🙄 👀
When translators work with phrasal verbs, they can make semantic errors because they don’t fully grasp their significance and mix up the phrasal verbs with their individual meanings.
To overcome these challenges, translators must be familiar with the meanings and usage of two-word verbs in both languages and use strategies like finding an equivalent verb or phrase or explaining the meaning in plain words. Again, avoid using literal translations that can sound unnatural or misleading in the target language.
Learn 80 Phrasal Verbs by clicking below!
🛠️ Multiple meanings
We are talking about words or phrases that have more than one meaning depending on the context or situation.
For example, “bat” can mean either “a flying mammal” or “a wooden stick used in baseball.” Multiple meanings are common in many languages, but especially in English.
Translating multiple meanings can be challenging and translators have to choose the correct meaning in the target language based on the context or situation. And if you’re a translator, you know all too well we’re not always given context!
To overcome these challenges, translators must be familiar with these multiple meanings and use strategies such as finding an equivalent word, using synonyms or antonyms, or adding modifiers/qualifiers.
Being literal can not only result in an ambiguous translation, but it can also turn out to be a hot mess. 🌶️ 🌶️
Sarcasm is a form of irony that expresses contempt or mockery by saying the opposite of what is meant. Sarcasm is often used for humor, criticism, or persuasion.
For example, with a certain tone of voice and facial expression, “nice weather we’re having” can turn into “the weather is awful.” ⛈️
Translating sarcasm can be difficult because we need to convey the intended meaning and tone in the target language without losing or changing the effect. But how do you translate sarcastic remarks into a language that has no equivalent expression?
To overcome these challenges, translators have to be familiar with the culture and context of both languages and use strategies such as finding an equivalent sarcastic remark or using quotation marks or italics to indicate sarcasm, or even adding an emoticon or an emoji to express emotion (where possible)!
They also need to be careful with literal translations that can sound sincere or polite in the target language and all irony will be lost!
Collocation is when some words like to hang out together a lot!
For whatever reason, native English speakers think these words are meant to be together and use them all the time, while other word pairs don’t get along well. 👰🏻🤵🏻💍
There are different kinds of collocations. Collocations can be like adjective + adverb, noun + noun, verb + noun, etc.
Collocation is why you say fast food but not quick food, and you say a quick shower but not a fast shower. These words mean the same thing, but if you don’t use the right “couple,” it will sound weird and unnatural to native speakers.
That’s why it’s not enough to just know English—a professional translator must know about tricky things like collocation and that words that collocate are like happily married couples: word pairs that simply belong together, and any other mix would be heartbreaking. 💔 😆
To wrap things up, we must add that translation is not just pain and sorrow, but it’s also a rewarding and enjoyable activity that allows people to connect with other people and cultures from different parts of the world.
But it’s also a challenging and demanding activity that requires knowledge, skills, and creativity.
At Verbarium, we face these common challenges on a daily basis and cope with them not only with professionalism, but also with humor and resilience.
It’s all about facing challenges, and these can make you laugh or cry, or both. It’s your choice! We always go for the positive approach. 😊
If you want to learn more about challenges in translation—and maybe laugh a bit more—take a look at our article about 10 disastrous translation errors here. 🤣
You can also check out our reading suggestion:
Difficulties of translating humour: From English into Spanish using the subtitled British comedy sketch show “Little Britain” as a case study
Charles Harrison, Anchor Academic Publishing