Translation is rarely as simple as matching a text word-for-word in a different language. In fact, achieving the highest translation quality often requires a blend of creativity and problem-solving. Why? Because professional translators must account for words that have a different meaning, depending on the context, cultural nuances, and much more.
In this article, we take a look at the six most common translation challenges and how they affect the translation process.
1. Translating Figures of Speech
Although figures of speech are part of everyday language, they still pose obstacles for translators. That's because a figure of speech deviates from the literal meaning of a word or phrase, often in a culturally-relevant way. Even countries that speak the same language have unique expressions that make little sense outside their borders. For example, Australians sometimes call traveling "gone walkabout", which refers to the Aboriginal rite of passage that required male adolescents to go on a long journey.
Given the variations within the same language, it's easy to see why translators may struggle to adapt a figure of speech into a different one. Below are three of the most literary challenges.
An idiom is a series of words in a fixed order that has a meaning that differs from each word on its own. For example, 'a piece of cake' in English refers to something that is easy. A student may say, "That math test was a piece of cake," which means she had no trouble answering the questions. In this instance, the phrase has nothing to do with a literal cake.
To translate idioms correctly, translators must recognize them as such. This requires a deep understanding of the target audience's culture and its linguistic nuances. Literally translating, "a piece of cake," wouldn't make sense in another language, so a translator will typically replace it with a similar idiom. In Mexican Spanish, people may say "pan comido" or a "eaten bread."
However, some idioms don't have a similar phrase in another language. When that's the case, a translator may either paraphrase it or leave it in the original language and add a footnote with an approximate translation.
Irony and Sarcasm
Canadian singer Alanis Morrisette famously used the word 'ironic' incorrectly in her eponymously named hit song. So, it's easy to understand why translators struggle to adapt ironic phrases into other languages.
To make matters worse, there are actually three main types of irony: situational irony, dramatic irony, and verbal irony. But for our purposes, let's take a look at verbal irony, which occurs when someone says one thing but means another. As an example, if a teacher asks a question and no one answers, she may say, "Don't everyone speak at once." She isn't literally asking her class to stay quiet, but is calling attention to the fact that no one has answered.
If irony wasn't difficult enough to translate, it's often confused with sarcasm, which is a remark intended to express contempt or ridicule. For example, someone may say "nice shoes" in a mocking tone to indicate that they find the shoes ugly.
Some examples of irony and sarcasm will be untranslatable, particularly if they include colloquialisms. In those cases, a translator may paraphrase the statement to convey the intended meaning. The translation will lose some of its literary quality, but the reader will still understand the message.
However, even if an ironic or sarcastic statement is translatable, a translator must take cultural norms into consideration. An expression that may sound silly or playful in one language, may sound harsh or offensive in another. Striking the right tone is essential when translating these figures of speech.
Metaphors and Similes
A metaphor uses a word in place of another to suggest a likeness. For example, you could say a new employee who pitches great ideas is "a breath of fresh air." Similes serve a similar function, but typically introduce the phrase using the words like or as. If someone is persistent, you may say "he's as stubborn as a mule."
Like other figures of speech, metaphors and similes tend to be culture bound. This means translators must determine whether a phrase with a similar meaning exists in the target language. The phrase "stubborn as a mule", for example, can be translated to "one's head is stiff" in Japanese.
Unfortunately, there isn't always an equivalent expression in the target language. And this is more likely to be the case when the two cultures have significant differences. When this happens, translators may try to get creative and come up with a phrase that can convey the original meaning. However, they must take extra care to ensure the translation remains culturally sensitive.
2. Matching Tone, Diction, and Rhythm
Tone is an essential part of any brand. Simply put, it's a consistent manner of communicating with your audience. It sets your brand apart from competitors and allows you to connect with customers on a more personal level. Tone of voice includes slogans and taglines, website copy, blogs, advertising campaigns, and other customer-facing communications.
To transmit a brand's message correctly, translators must carefully reproduce the same tone of voice in the target language. That requires taking several stylistic factors into consideration such as:
- Diction. Does the brand use complex vocabulary or plain language?
- Degree of formality. Is the tone friendly or professional?
- Rhythm of speech. How do the words flow in each sentence and how can that be replicated?
Other factors such as humor, slang, and cultural references can also be difficult-or even impossible-to perfectly replicate. When this is the case, a translator may replace a joke, colloquialism, or reference with one that will be better understood in the target culture.
3. Untranslatable Words
Sometimes a word or phrase simply has no equivalent in the target language. This usually occurs when it’s closely tied to the culture of the source language. For example, the Danish word hygge, which evokes feelings of togetherness, warmth, and coziness, has no equivalent in English. It comes from the Danish custom of investing in self-care and quality time with loved ones during the country’s long, cold winters.
To tackle untranslatable words, translators may use an adaptation instead of a literal translation. For example, American Thanksgiving is often translated into "Day of Gratitude" in other languages. In other instances, translators simply "borrow" the word and use it as if it belonged to the target language. Examples of borrowed words in English include déjà vu, bona fide, karma, and schadenfreude.
4. Translating Compound Words
A compound word is a combination of two or more root words that creates a new one. Some compound words, like toothbrush and candlelight, are easy to translate because the meaning is literal. However, others such as butterfly and carpool, can't be translated literally. A carpool isn't a pool with a car in it, nor are any flies made out of butter.
Sometimes a compound word has an equivalent term in the target language. In Spanish, butterfly translates into mariposa. Other words, such as carpool don’t, which means the translator will need to describe the meaning instead.
Translators must also have a good understanding of compound word usage in both languages. For example, in Chinese, compound words can combine nouns and verbs. And in German, you can keep combining nouns almost indefinitely. In fact, the longest German compound word has 63 letters!
5. Accounting for Cultural Nuances
Translation alone doesn’t always address all the cultural nuances you may need to consider. When this is the case, your translation project will need to undergo a process known as localization to adapt the entire user experience. Think of localization as an umbrella term that includes translation underneath it. For example, website localization may involve:
- Translating content to account for a local or regional dialect.
- Adapting design elements such as colors, images, and layout.
- Altering currency, time and date formats, and units of measurement.
- Altering legal information such as privacy policies.
Although localization involves additional work, it's the best way to ensure your project has a "native" look and feel. This helps you drive engagement and build brand loyalty in the target market.
6. Highly Technical Translations
A technical translation is the translation of a technical document. Examples include proposals, reports, instruction manuals, and software specifications. This type of translation poses two major problems:
- Specialized vocabulary. Industry-specific terms for tools, features, and processes can be difficult to translate. In some instances, no equivalent word exists in the target language, and the translator must use a descriptive phrase to accurately convey the information.
- Length of the original text. Some languages are more concise than others. That means a short instructional manual in one language can grow to become a much larger document in another, if the translator isn’t careful. Keeping the text concise, without losing essential information requires expertise in both translation and the subject matter.
To ensure accuracy, translators use a translation glossary that defines all the commonly used terms. It's particularly helpful if the author of the document works with the translator to develop one.
How to Solve These Challenges of Translation
As you can see, translators must understand the nuances of language and culture to address the most common translation problems. Although machine translation continues to improve, it's still unable to account for figures of speech, tone of voice, and other cultural aspects of language. In contrast, human translators can draw on their experiences to come up with creative solutions for problems such as untranslatable words.
Fortunately, a hybrid approach allows you to enjoy the benefit of more affordable translations—without sacrificing your brand message. Here’s how it works: human translators adapt nuanced content, where context is crucial, and machine translation adapts less brand sensitive content, where word choice isn’t as important. This option offers the best of both worlds for projects such as website translation.
Partner with Professional Linguists
Despite advances in technology, human translators will likely always play a role in overcoming language barriers. As you evaluate translation options, consider whether the project requires an understanding of tone of voice, technical vocabulary, or cultural differences. If so, you'll likely need to work with professional linguists to achieve the translation quality you desire.
At MotionPoint, we combine the latest technology with a network of world-class human translators to address any translation challenge. From website localization to superior multilingual content, we get your brand message across in any language. Contact us today to learn more about our innovative translation solutions.Last updated on September 07, 2022