Translation isn’t an easy task. But some translations are trickier than others.
Translators, interpreters, and linguists generally agree that these are the hardest things to translate:
- idioms - Idiomatic expressions are most frequently cited as the most difficult thing to translate. This is perfectly understandable. Not only does it take a deep knowledge of a language, as well as the culture(s) associated with it to recognize them; it’s not always easy to find an equivalent in another language. And if there is no equivalent, a translator has to find another way to keep the phrase’s tone and meaning.
- industry- and culture -specific terms. How do you translate terminology related, say, to the US healthcare system, for a target language and culture that operates totally differently?
- translating dialogue for videos - In addition to conveying the meaning of what’s being said, subtitle translations and dubbing require each translated line to fit into the time it’s spoken on screen.
- puns - It’s rare that a pun can be directly or nearly directly translated from one language to another. This means translators often have to get creative, which may be especially challenging if they’re on a deadline or have a heavy workload…or if they aren’t fans of puns in any language!
-cultural references - How can you convey the meaning that comes from a shared cultural experience into another culture? There are some common strategies and options for translating cultural references, but that doesn’t take away from the inherent difficulty of getting them right.
Some translators have more specific things that plague them. Several translators recently posted on Quora about the translations they think are the trickiest. These include:
- words whose meaning has changed or that have multiple meanings that can contradict one another. The poster gives the example of the word “bad”, which in ‘80’s and ‘90’s US slang could sometimes mean “good”.
- translating the English word “you” into other languages. In English, “you” is the one pronoun used to address people of different genders, social status, age, and individuals as well as groups. But languages like French and Spanish, for instance, have several words for “you”, depending on things like formality, the number of people being addressed, and gender. This can make translating sources where “you” isn’t used clearly, or where there might be some question of the degree of familiarity between characters, a nightmare.
- descriptive vocabulary related to food. At first, it might seem as though this was a complaint from someone who’s just not interested in culinary matters. But two other translators in the thread also mention translating menus. The particular challenges here include being sure to get the food right, in case a mistake leads a restaurant patron to an allergic reaction; and recognizing local names for dishes, which are often peppered with figurative language.
- capturing the tone and diction of poetry in another language. The poster goes on to add that, as you might expect, rhymes are also incredibly hard to translate from one language to another. And in another translation-related Quora thread, a translator mentions the difficulty of translating meter.
- The Big Lebowski. A linguist named Dan Lenski has an extremely specific translation gripe: The 1998 Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski, which has become a cult classic. In a long, fascinating post that’s worth the read if you have the time and/or love this movie, he points out the many challenges this film in particular presents to translators, summing it up thusly:
The language used in the movie is often very coarse….[I]t’s also highly idiomatic, playful, self-referential, stylistically varied, and evocative of a dizzying array of cultural stereotypes which are largely specific to the USA.
Lenski then goes on to give numerous examples of things like wordplay and recurring jokes and references that ultimately make the film, in his opinion, “impossible to translate”.
(That said, The Big Lebowski has been translated into a number of foreign languages and is one of the Coen Brothers’ biggest international box office successes.)
Some translations are more difficult than others. Luckily, a good translator will persevere, keeping source material just as compelling in its new version.
Contact Our Writer – Alysa Salzberg