The difficulty of translating from one language to another

Sep 15, 2020 | Journal

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.

First of all you can run into the problem of language barriers. This means to describe something in a given language you may use a word that says everything and tells us exactly what we mean, but that word or phrase in another language may totally be missing. To overcome this, one sometimes needs to write a whole sentence to explain what the writer meant under that one particular word. A nice example for this is the many words that Eskimos have for snow. In English you have to make word pairs or write sentences to explain different states of snow. This simply means that a language can lack words to describe surroundings that were not or are not present in their environment. Other languages have words that describe something, which you have to explain in a long sentence.

The second problem you may come upon is cultural differences. Culture and History have a great impact on the language. Certain words simply have a deeper or greater meaning behind them, that the same word in a different language simply dos not possess. A great example for this is the English word “bloody”, other than its basic meaning; it can be used as a curse word, a negative connotation or in a derogatory way. In Hungarian you do not use it’s pair if you want to express the same feelings. You may use “átkozott” which means cursed in English, instead of “véres” which is the translated version of bloody. In fact the word “cursed” can be used instead of “bloody” in English as well, but it is less common. The word “bloody -> véres” has a symbolic negative meaning in Hungarian as well, for example you can refer to the “véres kard”/”bloody sword” which is a symbol of war. (The bloody sword is carried around the country to call peasants into the army.) In Polish, you may say “cholerny” which derives from the word cholera, if you want to express the negative meaning of the original word, instead of its raw translation “krwawy”. Most of the times words have a deeper meaning behind them.

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/raw translation of the word. Because it may not carry its deeper meaning behind itself because of the cultural difference.

One more problem that you 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. Or you could take for example sarcasm. 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, you may have to write a totally different sentence, because the words you would have used in metaphrase may mean a whole different thing. Without understanding the mind behind the text, one can miss the greater picture. To give back every value behind a text, you 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 you want to translate. Give a deep thought to what the writer truly wanted to say and then compose your translation in regards of those points.

It is a long and hard way to fully translate a text, while giving back the original intentions, deeper meanings and the values woven into the original. However, it is never impossible if you are willing to take the steps required to truly understand what you are translating.