March 29

Translation Challenges Faced by Translators

Challenges translators face when translating from one language to another

Being a translator is about much more than simply being bilingual, it is about being able to interpret and transcribe a message suitably, according to its purpose and target audience, taking into account not only language aspects, but also social and cultural factors. In order to successfully and accurately complete a translation, a very specific set of skills is required to overcome language barriers. Indeed, working as a professional in the translation industry is not as simple as it may sound; let’s have a look at the translation challenges faced by translators and linguists daily.

Difficulties caused by language structure

There are about 7000 living languages currently listed in the world, not to mention the number of
 dialects existing within these languages. Every single one of them is unique, with own origins, roots and structure. In a way, each language is a prism and has its own complex way of functioning Idioms, expressions, compound words, false friends, even onomatopoeic expressions; all of them make the richness and uniqueness of a language, but also represent an obstacle for communication.

For example, a funny joke in one language can lose all its meaning when translated to another, so if you’re trying to transcribe a joke in a foreign language, your interlocutor might not actually get your sense of humour. This, especially within the business and marketing environments, can be potentially dangerous.

Literal translation can be very tricky. Take, for example, Arabic. Not only is reads from right to left unlike English, but the subject pronouns are actually included in conjugated verbs. It shows just how complex the way of functioning of each language is, and how difficult it can be for someone whose native language is completely different to learn and even translate Arabic.

These differences often create ambiguity, as words, expressions or sentences can have other
meanings when used in a different context, which can cause misunderstandings and wrong
interpretations: translators must be very careful with that.

As examples, to “hear something through the grapevine” in the English language means hearing
 rumours. Well, this expression would make literally no sense if translated in another language such as French. There are also many words in each language with no literal equivalent in another language, which can make them extremely hard to transcribe without altering their exact meaning.

Another factor which complicates the understanding of languages even more is the existence of
dialects. Dialects are specific forms of languages spoken in particular regions or social groups. The interesting aspect of these subsets is that within the same language, different populations can speak in a completely different way, with words that have diverse uses and sounds which are pronounced completely differently.

Again, the Arabic language, which is the fifth most spoken language in the world and the official
language in 22 countries, is a good example. Although spoken by 250 million people in Middle-
Eastern and North-African countries, its speakers do not actually all speak the “same” Arabic.
Almost each of those countries has its very own dialect, with different variations even within the
 country. For instance, it would be difficult for a Moroccan to communicate with an Iraqi if they both used their own dialects of Arabic: they would probably use the classical Arabic language they learned at school, which isn’t however typically spoken.

The complexity of such languages makes them very difficult to learn, but, at the same time, it is also exactly what makes them very rich and fascinating.

Dialectal languages are therefore a major obstacle the professional translators must deal with and overcome in order to transmit the intended message accurately, requiring a considerable knowledge and interpreting skills. It takes an advanced level of linguistic knowledge to get expressions, metaphors, jargon, slang and different dialects which is very challenging.

Cultural factors

Each population has a way of communicating and expressing its own messages, as well as its own code when it comes to language, symbols, understanding, shorthand, etc. These factors generate a big potential for misunderstanding; cultural factors are therefore another important challenge translators are faced with daily.

There is this idea of “noise”, caused by the cultural prism and the decoding of the recipient, that a
 message can be altered due to cultural differences that interfere in the communication between two people from different cultural backgrounds when interacting. Then, a whole different interpretation can come out of a message which actually has another meaning. Certain gestures, for example, are considered impolite in some countries and cultures while they are frequently used in others, which can cause offense when actually there is no such intention behind it.

This is something translators have to consider as well. Indeed, the work of a translator is not going to be effective if not interpreted correctly.

The cultural context of the country each language comes from has to be taken into account. In some cultures, people communicate very implicitly and you have to read between the lines, while in some others people are much more direct and explicit. This can also be a source of misunderstandings. Some cultures are rather neutral, some are much more emotional and expressive, which can make communication more difficult to understand.

When communicating orally, even more aspects come into play. Body language, tone of voice and attitude all play a role in understanding a foreigner. In some countries, people do not look at each other when they are talking, which is a matter of respect for them. On the contrary, in most western countries, looking at each other when interacting is normal.

The impact of culture is once more very important and translators should have a certain knowledge of the culture they are translating with to encode, react and transmit the message correctly. Usually, agencies and companies offering translation services work with linguists who are native speakers of the target language, ensuring that the both – the language and cultural factors are fully understood and accurately translated.

Sector expertise

Working professionally as a translator involves having sufficient knowledge and experience in
 particular business fields. Translators have to be able to work with different materials. Whether it is legal documents, marketing documents or websites, these tasks are very different. Whatever the type of document is, a specific knowledge in the right field and industry is essential to be as accurate and reliable as possible, as it takes a knowledge of the right vocabulary, the right procedures, etc.

For marketing documents, translators have to translate but also to adapt the message to the target market’s culture, society and lifestyle. For example, when translating a simple slogan, the sentence has to be adapted in another language where the rhymes won’t necessarily be the same if translated literally. This is therefore a major difficulty for the translator and only creative translators are able to complete such tasks.

When it comes to legal documents, it is even more fastidious to translate from one language to
 another. A specific knowledge in this area is required as each country has its own legal system and its own laws: the translator must be able to cope with that and be aware of these differences.
As for the translation of a website, it doesn’t just imply translating word-for- word but it implies
adapting it to the target country, otherwise it won’t cut the job. It is important to use a localised
approach, more than just a “one-for- all” approach.

Once again, it is not just about being fluent, but knowing the culture and the market that correspond to the target language. It is also about the layout of the website, especially with languages such as Arabic and Hebrew which are written from right to left or some Asian languages: the display has to be adapted accordingly.

It is part of the translator’s job to meet these specific conditions for an efficient and successful
translation, without misrepresenting the initial core message.

Translating specific content

Translators who must translate specific materials like fiction have to transcribe a whole story,
context, world and environment into another language. It involves creativity to transfer cultural
values and traditions and to make them understandable and adapted without altering them: the
translator has to remain true to the original piece.

When translating films for example, the right words and expressions should be chosen to fit each
scene and maintain a certain coherence. Culture then plays a major role.

For books, literary translations are about transmitting feelings, emotions and transcribing metaphors to make the fiction travel in an adapted yet accurate way. It is often hard to keep the writing style intact, which is another challenge translators have to deal with. The same goes for poetry: it should be handled carefully to maintain the implicit message, the writing style and the beauty of the piece.

Translating fiction is therefore a subtle work and professionals have to pay attention to all the
cultural factors involved as well as the purpose of the original piece.

How to handle these difficulties

To turn translation challenges into opportunities and make efficient, accurate translations, translators should:

  • Not be literal: adapt the translation to transcribe accurately the meaning of the message and use the proper expressions
  • Know about the industry, its technical vocabulary, its procedures: specializing in specific industries, fields
  • Be able to do some research, as doubts can always occur
  • Have good communication skills: to transcribe a message without altering its purpose and keep its actual meaning

As you can see, to be suitable for professional translations and to work for translation agencies, that work with professional native translators, it takes more than just being bilingual. It is about being able to find the right words to depict the right message in another language. The quality of a translator’s work involves translating and localising messages and documents accurately and
accordingly, which is a truly rigorous work.

By Ines Oudadesse


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    • Language is more than just grammar and vocabulary. Hard to believe that AI can ever capture nuances, inflections, suggestive pauses, emotional bias, etc etc…. all elements embedded witin the written word.
      However, back in the 1970’s little did anyone believe what we are all experiencing in the developed world. 🙂

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