09 Mar '17

The Challenges of English Translation

The complex nature of the English language presents many challenges to translators. A poor quality translation can lead to miscommunication, unintended insults, or affronts to the client's cultural sensitivities. Some etymologists claim that the numerous influences, including Latin, Celtic, German, and French on the English language have resulted in complex grammatical rules and pronunciations that impede translation. Here are a few of the major difficulties that translators face, especially in translations of informal communications.

Structure: There is a maxim in translation: The more elementary the language, the easier it is to translate into another language. The structural complexity of a language determines the ease of which it can be translated. The more rules and the more exceptions to those rules make the translator's task increasingly cumbersome and time consuming. It is in the process of reconciling the structural differences between languages that the quality and accuracy of the translation can be affected detrimentally. The placement of subject, verb and object do not necessarily fall in that order in languages other than English. Additionally, some languages, such as Arabic, incorporate pronouns into the word used as the verb in a sentence.

Irregular verbs can also present problems. Irregular verbs defy the rules that structure the language and as a consequence can present difficulties to the translator. Why does the past tense of know become knew and not knowed? Why does the past tense of hear become heard? How does the past tense of buy become bought? Idiosyncrasies like this are one of the reasons that translators may need to spend more time on their documents.

Idioms, Colloquialisms: An idiom is a phrase where the words, when used in a phrase, have a meaning that is different from the dictionary definitions of the individual words. Idioms present an insurmountable problem for the machine translation industry but also call heavily upon the talents of the human translator to effectively relay the spirit and context of a statement from one language to another. Due to the cultural basis of idioms, slang and colloquialisms, similar cultural phenomena may not be present in the language being translated into, thus increasing the risk of misunderstanding, loss of context, confusion and loss of flow. A few examples:

  • If a college was recruiting for overseas students the term 'to hit the books' may convey a confusing message when translated into the target language.
  • During a negotiation, the term "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" may lead to some consternation about the other party's intent and motivation if translated literally.
  • Do homes in Vancouver really "cost an arm and a leg". Prospective foreign investors may become unnerved by having real estate investment explained in such a manner.

Words with Multiple Meanings: Perhaps the most challenging aspect of ensuring high quality translation is the proper translation of homonyms, homophones and homographs.

Homonym – a word that is spelled and pronounced like another word but is different in meaning.

Homophone – a word that is pronounced like another word but is different in meaning, origin, or spelling.

Homograph – a word that is spelled like another word but is different in origin, meaning, or pronunciation.

Consider translating the following:

  • Never scale a fish before you weigh it using a fisherman's scale.
  • It was a very windy day to walk down the windy road.
  • He read a book about a red reed.
  • The right way to exercise your right to free speech is to write the right newspaper editor.
  • It is just right for a person to have the right to be charged a just and fair fare on the train.

The difficulties that arise from homonyms and/or homographs demonstrate that the translator must have a thorough understanding of the contextual meaning of the document or conversation being translated.

Sarcasm, double entendres and puns: Sarcasm is an ironical taunt or cutting remark which can be extremely challenging for the translator to convey effectively. 'Oh really?', "okay (oka-a-a-y)" and "excuse me" are basic examples of a sarcastic retort that can easily lose its meaning and effect if not translated in a contextually meaningful way. Word play and puns can be culture bound and be nearly impossible to convey in a culturally accurate way through translation. The structure or grammatical rules of the target language may severely restrict the true meaning or gist of a phrase from being communicated since what causes sentimental nuance may not be conveyed.

Although technical, procedural and legal translations present various issues for the translator, it is the translation of informal communication where many challenges mentioned above may arise. Mechanical translation often falls short in this regard because nuance and context is vital to the conveyance of the message. It is for this reason that the translator must be thoroughly fluent in the source language — familiar with the cultural norms, colloquial expressions, and forms of humour, sarcasm and metaphor. This is why the professional translator who excels at their occupation should be considered both an adept technician and perceptive artist.






About The Author

An accomplished author, Jason brings a diverse skill set to MKTG. He originally started at the company as a research assistant and, after spending time overseas, returned to the team in 2008 as Manager of Special Projects. In his current role, Jason oversees MKTG’s special projects, with a particular focus on employee development, training, multimedia translation requests and other large-scale or special-skill opportunities.