Translation Problems – Different Ideas in Different Tongues

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One of the biggest misconceptions about translating, and one of the biggest translation problems, comes from the underlying belief that words are a tool for expressing ideas.Many people, if you were to ask them, would say that they believe that words have specific meanings, and are put together to form clear ideas. If that was true, the meanings could easily be translated into various languages just by taking each word and finding the equivalent.

In fact, this idea is totally wrong, and relates to one of the largest translation problems.

Constructive Translations Blog

Constructive Translations Blog

For this article, to keep things simple I will talk mainly about spoken words, rather than documents. Later on we can talk more about written documents and see how that further complicates the situation.

The first thing to understand is that words are not the “molecules” of meaning. During spoken communication things like tone of voice are much more important than the words. For example, “come here” can be angry (implying that you are in trouble), but could also be seductive. The actual words aren’t the fundamental bricks of what is being said.

Let’s take a typical spoken sentence: “I’m going East, see you later”, said from one colleague to another. Out of context we can possibly guess what might be meant. Here are some possibilities:

  1. “East” is the name of one part of the store where the two colleagues work, and that colleague is about to start their shift in the store.
  2. “East” refers to the East exit, which tends to be where smokers meet, so in other words, the colleague is going for a smoke.
  3. “East” refers to the East of London, so the colleague is going to East London tonight to meet a mutual friend for drinks.
  4. “Going East” is an expression used at that particular company to mean “going to the warehouse”.

Okay, now let’s talk about my own made up language to help understand the problems facing the translator. Let’s go through each possibility one by one.

  1. In our made up language, place names are always followed by the letter “o”, so here we could have to translate to “I’m going Easto, see you later”
  2. Here, the word East is still referring to a place name, so the same translation would work “I’m going Easto, see you later”
  3. In our made up language, compass directions are written using a different alphabet (East is written as ASDS in this alphabet), so the translation would be “I’m going ASDS, see you later”
  4. In our made  up language, expressions are only used in very formal situations, so here the translator would have to say “I’m going to the warehouse”.

I hope this made up example gives a clear illustration of these translation problems. Each of the scenarios I described actually exist in different languages.

In this series of blog posts I’m going to go into details on these translation problems, with concrete examples, and some potential solutions.