What’s So Hard About English? The Challenge of Translating From English

  |  June 20, 2018

The challenge of translating from English.

Americans often think of our American English as easy to understand. But it has complexities that make it difficult to understand for those who are learning it as a second language—and for those translating from English to another language.

To non-English speakers, English is notoriously tricky. There are unusual aspects of the language, which have no particular rules to follow; they just exist. Often, there appear to be untranslatable words. These and several other issues make translating from English one of the most difficult assignments.

Translating from English can be weird. It can be done through tough thorough thought, though. #translatingfromEnglish Click To Tweet

Translating From English—Language Structure

Every language is built upon a defined structure with its own rules of usage. The singular complexity of this structure directly affects the difficulty of translation.

The most basic sentence structure in English has, in this order, a subject, verb, and object. For example, “Mike eats tacos.”

Not every language follows this structure. Some language structures follow a sequence of subject, then object, then verb. In Arabic, subject pronouns actually become part of the verb itself. Because of differences in the basic structure of languages, translators must add, remove, or rearrange words from English to communicate effectively in the target language.

Translating From English—Grammar Styles

Since many languages are derived from various origins, not only is their basic structure different, but also their basic grammar.

Syntax—Even if two languages use the same basic structure, one language’s grammar may allow for more leniency, therefore altering the syntax and the entire meaning of the sentence.

For example, the emphasized subject in Spanish is most often placed at the end of a sentence. If we want to show that Susan, not Jane, threw some flowers, in Spanish, the literal syntax would be, “threw the flowers Susan.” Obviously, this doesn’t make sense in English.

Gender—Most languages are two-gender in their basic structure, meaning that nouns are assigned a gender usage. This is easily understood in English, but in Spanish, for example, the word for “bikini” is a masculine noun, although mainly worn by women.

Verbs—English verb tenses are indicated by suffixes for each tense. But those simple suffix changes can indicate a complete change of word and sometimes additions of words or numbers in other languages.

Adjectives—In English, adjectives are typically used before the noun and do not change even if used after. In other languages, the adjective may come after the noun in regular usage and even have a number and gender.

Articles—Almost all Western European languages use articles and so does American English. The challenge in translating from English is that many other languages do not. In English, this makes for sloppy, unclear sentences.

Translating From English—Word Variety

Word combinations in English always seem to follow no particular rhyme or reason, and not just to non-English speakers. That’s where the difficulty with untranslatable words often occurs. Consider these different types of word combinations.

Compound Words—Compound words are formed by combining two or more words together. The difficulty arises from the fact that the overall meaning of the compound word may not reflect the meaning of its component words. Some do, and some do not.

  • Group One: Mean exactly what they say. “Airport,” “crosswalk,” and “seashore,” all mean what they say. Both words combined to make the one word lend literal meaning to the end word.
  • Group Two: Mean only half of what they say. A “bookworm” may enjoy burrowing into a good story, but these avid readers don’t suddenly become actual worms.
  • Group Three: Have meanings that have nothing to do with the meanings of the individual words involved. “Deadline” refers to the final acceptable time to receive or deliver something. It has nothing to do with death or a line. And a “butterfly” is neither a fly nor butter.

Multiple Meanings—English words can have many meanings, and the definite use is determined by context. The same word may mean multiple things depending on where it’s placed and how it’s used in a sentence.

  • Homonyms: “Scale the fish before weighing it on the scale.” Both words look and sound alike but are defined differently.
  • Heteronyms: “I drove down the windy road on a windy day.” Both words look alike but are defined and pronounced differently.

Idioms—Idiomatic expressions present real challenges when translating from English. These word combinations explain something by using unique examples or figures of speech. Most difficult is the fact that the meaning of these odd phrases cannot be interpreted by the literal definitions of the words they contain. That makes for some untranslatable words and phrases.

  • A dime a dozen
  • A blessing in disguise
  • Bite the bullet
  • Break a leg
  • Cutting corners
  • Hit the sack
  • It’s not rocket science
  • The best of both worlds
  • Under the weather

The Need for Professionals When Translating From English

The above examples are only a few of the complexities faced when translating from English to another language.

Simply employing a person who speaks the target language to handle translating your important documents isn’t good enough. A professional translation services team that’s familiar with English and your target languages can help optimize your translation outcomes.