The Difficulties of Translating

Jun 24, 2021 | Journal

Previously, I have already explored some aspects of this topic in an essay that I shared on my site. However, I thought it was lacking in academic support and mostly contained my views and experiences. Therefore, I decided to re-evaluate and re-edit that post.

Prologue: Main argument and thesis statement

Translating a text, even a basic one, from one language to another can cause really bad headaches. It may seem easy, but in reality, it is not that simple. Metaphrase, meaning word-to-word translation is not merely enough. Sometimes translators need to make compromises, because translating certain elements from one language to another is not always possible.

I. Part:

First of all, a translator can run into the problem of language barriers. This means to describe something in a given language, where the translator may use a word that says everything and tells us exactly what a person means by using it, but that word or phrase in another language may totally be missing. To overcome this, the translator sometimes needs to write a whole sentence to explain what the writer meant under that one particular word.

Currently, mostly because of the wide access to internet; we have a lot of books and tools available to help us overcome these barriers by leading us to an understanding of the various cultural differences.

An example for this is the many words that the Pirahas have for trees. In English, people have to make word pairs or write sentences to explain different states or forms of trees. This simply means that a language can lack words to describe surroundings that were not or are not present in their environment. Alternatively, it can also mean that different cultures in their existence focused on and held different objects in high regards. The main point is that different languages have words that describe something, which the translator have to explain in a longer sentence.

According to Sathosi Nakamura – who is a Doctor of Engineering, Involved in speech and language processing, with a focus on speech translation and speech recognition – a translating machine or software uses word-to-word translation method to simply override this problem. Often leaning on the users to do the required check in order to get the proper meaning. However, a software that is capable of learning – either through users or administrators adding exceptions and new phrases; or either by analysing conversations and other databases – can give a much better or more accurate translation.

Therefore, this language barrier presents a problem in the field of computer science too, and as of now, there is no perfect method to solve this. In software development, the goal is to make translators to be able to learn and adapt to these situations.

II. Part:

The second problem a translator may run into is cultural differences. Culture and History have a great impact on any language. Certain words simply have a deeper or greater meaning behind them, that the same word in a different language simply dos not possess.

According to Daniel Everett – who is a famous American linguist – different cultures through their language have different perception about the world around them, based on their lifestyle and what carries greater importance in their culture. He studied the Piraha language within the Amazonian Jungles. Language is formed by the culture and culture is formed by the language. The Pirahas, therefore have multiple words for different trees, because those are more important to them, while they cannot understand why Dan has different “names” attached to his different books.

Franz Uri Boas was an anthropologist who extended his knowledge and made research about other fields as well, for example into the relationship between language and culture.

From him originates the idea of cultural relativism. According to Boas, cultures cannot be objectively ranked as higher or lower, or better or more correct, because all humans see the world through the lens of their own culture, and judge it according to their own culturally acquired norms. Through this idea, culture shapes language, and language shapes culture.

In conclusion, This all means that a word in a given language can mean a lot of different things and one has to come up with a whole different word to mean exactly what the writer wanted to say, not just giving a plain or a raw translation of the word. Because it may not carry its deeper meaning behind itself because of the cultural difference.

III. Part:

The third problem that a translator can face is the way of thinking of the writer. People who speak a language, especially native speakers, think differently from representatives or users of other languages. This can cause the problem of missing the main point, or not realising the true meaning of the text. The way how the writer built up the sentences, formed the whole of the text or even why the author has chosen certain words in comparison to others. For non-native speakers it can be difficult to determine if it is irony or not. It is difficult to read between the lines, to find the true and deeper meaning of any written text.

To give back the original meaning, a translator may have to write a very different sentence, because the words, which would be used in metaphrase, may carry completely different meaning.

Without understanding the mind behind the text, one can miss the greater picture. To give back every value behind a text, a translator will have to consider certain stylistic features, use the right symbols, which may differ from the original, but mean the same in the given language, which is the aim of the translation. It is important to give a deep thought to what the writer truly wanted to say, which means to analyse the writing or to use a critical approach, and only then will the translator become able to compose the translation in regards of those points.

IV. Part:

However, sometimes the translator has to make difficult choices, because it can happen that certain jokes, phrases or ironies cannot be translated to a given language. No matter what we do, it will remain impossible, because the point will get lost in translation. These might just not exist in the language or are not compatible with the language. For example, puns.

See video below for a concrete Hungarian example:



According to Jingjing Cui’s research – from the Foreign Languages Department, Dezhou University, Dezhou, China – word play is the most difficult form to translate, because its meaning is strongly affected by the original language. Therefore, it creates an untranslatable phrase. Jingjing Cui compares Chinese with English to demonstrate how certain elements of the language cannot be translated in a given context. The grammatical system also plays a great role in these situations, because word order or a different alphabet can easily be the sole origin of the meaning. Those a translator can only give back through explanations.

A translator might be able to make a new wordplay to convey the meaning of the original, but in some contexts, it is impossible, even by explanations through addition sentences or words. Those can easily lead to ruining the joke or the pun. Therefore, the translator has to make compromises sometimes and even let some things go and just move on.

A great example for this is the “Book of Five Rings” by Miyamato Musashi. By looking at this book, it will become easier to explain the process of how translators are trying to come up with different ideas on implementing the core values and meaning of the text. In case of the untranslatable, they sometimes have to write a whole appendix. This is most common with languages like Japanese or Chinese. For example, in the Hungarian translation (and I assume in the English one too) of the “Book of Five Rings” by Miyamato Musashi, the translator included, in the back of the book, a significant appendix, referring back and explaining certain words that were left untranslated in the text. Those words needed whole sentences to make sense for Hungarians.

V. Part:

The idea of a common language to solve the problems presented. In theory it sounds useful and based on some sci-fi books, it may be inevitable in the future for humanity to speak one common language, mainly to become effective or coherent. In some fiction it is presented as one of the milestones for humanity to be reached. However, in this writer’s opinion a common language requires people to give up their identity. I base this on the idea that language is a crucial part of a culture. For example, if I say “elvágyódás”* or “hiányérzet”** and Hungarian readers will immediately know what I mean, but in English, I have to write a whole sentence to explain what I want to say, and sometimes the feeling that this word carries just gets lost.

* The meaning of the Hungarian word “elvágyódás”: The English word “longing” is sometimes used to replace this word in English texts. The German word “wanderlust” is also very close to the Hungarian “elvágyódás”. However, these two words convey only parts of the original meaning. The original meaning of the Hungarian word is “the feeling of desire to get away from where a person is currently present”. The word “wanderlust” may imply the concrete desire to travel, but the word “elvágyódás” is not about travelling, but rather it is a feeling of wanting to get out and/or away. It does not imply action, while “wanderlust” has, also it is not  necessarily about a place. A person can also do the act “elvágyódni” in regards another time or era. The word “longing” on the other hand applies the negative connotation of the word, but does not mean exactly this strong feeling to get away. The Hungarian word implies a rather melancholic feeling of longing for and missing something that a person is not sure about where in the world to find, but still the feeling of wanting to escape reality.

** The meaning of the Hungarian word “hiányérzet”: The English word “lack” is sometimes used to replace this word in English texts. However, this word conveys only part of the original meaning. The original meaning of the Hungarian word is “the feeling that something is missing or lacking from the life of a person, which this person cannot really name”. This Hungarian word implies a strong negative feeling, which may occur in different instances. For example, when a person is packing things for travel and the feeling of something is missing occurs, which cannot be named or pinpointed. In this case, the person is almost sure that something was left out, because the intuition keeps telling the person that something is missing, but the exact object cannot be named. Also, this feeling can occur in an instance where something is lacking in satisfaction and the person who experiences this, cannot name what was missing or what could give this satisfaction.

Also, to bring something interesting from another language: have you ever wondered how basic the word weekend is? We have it too in Hungarian, “hétvége”, it is part of our life. However, interestingly, the Polish language did not have a word for that. So, they simply took the word “weekend” from English and they are using it in their language as it is. My question is, if we are to come up with a common language, on which already existing language are we going to base it on? On which cultural sphere? In our current world, it is hard to answer and as I have mentioned, it may require people to give up their own culture.

However, the common language topic can be approached from a different point of view. Maybe the solution is that everyone has to speak two languages, one being a lingua franca. Nowadays, English is a language that serves as a lingua franca. Nevertheless, I think this is also a problematic topic, at least today, because there are political factors at play, which might sabotage one language or another to rise to the level of lingua franca that is used all around the world. In addition, this will not eliminate the language barriers that I was arguing about in earlier.

VI. part:

Swearing or also known as cursing originates from taboo words. Dan Everett speaks about this in detail as well. To bring a mild example that is on the verge, the word “fene” originates from an illness that eats you from either the outside or the inside. It is literally wishing for someone’s painful death. People at one point believed that the words we speak out loud have so sever weight that it can actually work as a real curse. Also, some other swear words originate from names that were given to something that people feared, even whispering their name could summon them, as they believed.


In conclusion, it is a long and hard way that a translator has to walk through to fully translate a text, while giving back the intentions, deeper meanings and the values woven into the original. It was never easy to stay true to the source material. In order to do so, it is required to truly understand what a person is translating. Sometimes it is required to make compromises and difficult decision in order to move through an untranslatable phrase.

Works cited:

  • Cui, Jingjing, April 2012, „Untranslatability and the Method of Compensation”, Theory and Practice in Language Studies, Volume 2, Number4, page 182-186

  • Everett, Daniel Leonard & Canguro English, December 2019, „The Story of Language”, Accessed on 20.04.2021.
  • Leland, Waldo Gifford, 1942, Studies in the history of culture: the disciplines of the humanities, Published for the Conference by the George Banta Pub. Co.

  • Kirkpatrick, Keith, March 2020, „Across the language barrierCommunications of the ACM Volume 63, Issue 3

  • Nakamura, Satoshi, April 2009, „Overcoming the Language Barrier with Speech Translation Technology”, QUARTERLY REVIEW, No.31

  • Unknown author, December 2017, „23 Awesome Hungarian Words that Don’t Exist in English”, on the website: Catch Budapest, Accessed on 24.05.2021.