Why is translation so difficult?

I do something very annoying.

Whenever I speak Portuguese I tend to drop English words in the middle of sentences. It’s weird, I know. But, my brain is just not fast enough. I guess it takes its time to switch the tape from one language to another.

The thing is, I speak 4 languages and I still suck at translation. Just the other day, I couldn’t find the Portuguese word for “accurate” in a conversation with my mother (and Portuguese is my mother tongue).

But is it just me? Or is translation an art for the few? And why is it so difficult?

Truth be told, translation is not as simple as it looks.

Same word, different meanings

When you read the English word “nail” what comes to your mind? The nails you have on your fingers and toes, or the pointy metal pieces used in construction?

Well, the word “nail” is like many others in the English language, it has different meanings. That’s what linguists call polysemy and it makes any translator’s job more difficult.

This is why literal translations are awkward and often dangerous — I mean it can even lead to acts of war.

However, to prevent these mistakes from happening taking context into account is usually helpful.

If someone says, “I need to get my nails done” — you know that person is probably not talking about hammering nails to the wall…

Culture is everything

Meaning is really down to context, often framed by the cultures of the languages involved. And translation is the compromise between respecting the source text and the need to make it comprehensible in the language you’re transforming it to.

For instance, in Portuguese, the word “saudade” is very difficult to translate because it’s very specific to Portuguese culture. It’s when you’re longing for something that is absent or someone you love, and you get this sense of profound melancholy. So, how do you translate a word that doesn’t exist in most languages?

And it’s not just words but also how you address the person you’re talking to or how you translate cultural expressions. If you use the English expression “from A to Z” how can you translate that to a language such as Mandarim which does not follow the Latin alphabet?

Language is restrictive

Translation is about finding the equivalent meaning to a sentence in a different language but more often than not you don’t have the exact equivalent words. There’s no word like “insight” in Spanish, or one word to say “shallow” in French.

Every language has its own restrictions which can really get in the way of a good translation.

Take French, for example, it’s a very gender marked language. You have masculine and feminine pronouns, nouns and adjectives. English is different, however. In English you can say “my friend is coming over”, without disclosing the gender of your friend but in French that’s simply impossible. You’d have specify the gender of your friend because the noun has to be either masculine (“ami”) or feminine (“amie”).

How do you translate that? How do you know if the “friend” is a he or a she?

False friends in language (it’s a trap!)

Remember those foreign words that sound familiar? I can’t think of better example than “constipated”.

In Portuguese, the word “constipado” means that you have a blocked nose but in English the similar word “constipated” means you’re having difficulty in emptying your bowels. Although arguably similar in a biological sense, it is also rather obviously different.

Same thing for the Spanish word “embarrazada”. Looks like “embarrassed” in English, right?

Wrong. It actually means “pregnant”.

This is what linguists call false friends, words in two different languages that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning.

I guess you really shouldn’t judge a book by looking at the cover.

In the end, one can say that translation is very complex. Because it’s not just about words. But about what words are about.

[Ed: and now a word from our sponsors…]

Translation has traditionally felt like getting buckets of water from the well, when you should just be able to open the taps. That’s why at Unbabel we’re making language barriers a thing of the past.

By combining state-of-the-art Neural Machine Translation (NMT) with the efforts of a 50,000+ strong community of bilingual editors to deliver a fast translation with the best possible quality.

That’s why companies like Daniel Wellington use Unbabel to have multilingual customer support and engage your customers in their own language.

It’s how Skyscanner increased their international customer satisfaction from 75% to 92% with Unbabel.

And why Pinterest trust us to deliver global customer support with just 5 English-speaking agents.

Find out how we can help right here.

The Unbabel Newsletter

Witty, informative and intensely curated, The Unbabel Newsletter is a fine addition to any inbox, dispatched every other Wednesday.

CodePen iconDribbble iconFacebook iconGitHub iconGulp iconInstagram iconLinkedIn icon Snapchat iconTwitter iconYouTube icon