9 Things That Make Language Translation Difficult

9 Things That Make Language Translation Difficult


Languages keep evolving, words are continuously added to the dictionary and rules change. Cultures and language systems differ, and consequently, language translation is complex, nuanced, and specialized. This blog highlights nine things that make the language translation process particularly difficult and complex. 

#1 Language Translation: Difficult Words

1 Language Translation Difficult Words

Certain words can be hard to translate because of cultural context.

If you consider the word “you”, in English it is seemingly straightforward, but in other languages not so much.

In many languages, there are differences in using the word “you” in informal and formal situations.

For example, in Afrikaans, Spanish, and Russian the word “you” has multiple variations depending on the situation, people involved, or relationship between individuals. “You” is even gender-specific in some languages. 

When considering how a seemingly simple word like “you” can cause translators headaches, it is not difficult to understand how difficult language translation can be.

#2 Language Translation: Slang

Slang complicates language translation because it often uses words in a different context than they traditionally would be used.

A person who may only have a basic grasp of a language may be very confused with slang and certainly should not be translating content.

Take the word “sick” in English. Sick can mean affected by physical or mental illness. But it can also mean “cool”, “amazing” or “impressive”.

For example, in Australian MasterChef, contestants and judges often say a dish is “sick”; meaning the dish is amazing or masterfully crafted. If “sick” is understood in its traditional context, it would mean a negative thing – the food makes them feel sick. This is the complete opposite of what the intended meaning is and indicates how easily slang can be mistranslated. 

#3 Language Translation: Structure

Each language has its own structure and set of rules. The more complex the structure and rules the more difficult the language translation.

What makes it exceptionally difficult is when you need to translate between languages with completely different structures (for example, subject-verb-object vs. subject-object-verb sentence structures).

This means translators often must add, rearrange, and remove words for the translation to make sense.

#4 Language Translation: Expressions, Sayings, and Proverbs

Expressions, sayings, and proverbs make languages rich, beautiful, and interesting.

They do however make language translation exceptionally difficult because they can be easily misinterpreted or missed.

Where possible remove any expression, idiom, and the like from the source texts to help simplify the translation process. 

Machine translations are notorious for not picking up expressions and that is why at Taia, we always recommend at the very least to have a translator review any machine translations you do. We also recommend using translators that are native speakers, if you want to keep the same richness when translating your content. 

#5 Language Translation: Closed and Open Compound Words

Compound words are when two or more words are joined to form a new word.

You can have closed or open compound words.

Closed compound words are formed when two independent words are joined to form a new word, for example, grandmother (grand + mother), anybody (any + body), and everything (every + thing).

Open compound words are formed when two words are joined by a concept but not written as one word. This includes terms like high school, hot dog, post office, and real estate.

Compound words add complexity to language translation. If they are split or translated separately they lose meaning. 

#6 Language Translation: When There is No Equivalent

Often languages do not have an exact match for a certain phrase or word when being translated into another language.

This makes language translation difficult because it means that the translator needs to find the closest equivalent or explain the concept. This can have length implications, which may be a problem if there are word or space limitations.

Not having an exact match will also require a degree of localization.

Translators often use the word guest room as an example. In some languages and cultures, the concept of a guest room (a spare bedroom where visitors stay) doesn’t exist. In other languages, there may be multiple words for the concept of a guest room. For example, in Italian, the guest room is phrased as “camera per gliospiti”. 

There are several options available for translators when no equivalent is available but it does complicate the language translation process. 

#7 Language Translation: Two-Word Verbs

Two-word verbs can make language translation difficult.

Some verbs and prepositions or particles are frequently used together.

Examples of two-word verbs are “look up”, “sit down”, “shut up”, “switch-off”, and “break up”. The verb and preposition together make a separate meaning when used together. 

Although two-word verbs complicate language translations, it’s not necessary or appropriate to translate the prepositions separately. The most important aspect is that the intended meaning is accurately conveyed in the target language.

#8 Language Translation: Sarcastic Phrases

Sarcasm is easy to miss in a source text and notoriously difficult to translate because it means the opposite of the literal phrasing or meaning of a text.

It is often associated with sharp, bitter, sometimes humorous, and critical expressions that should be removed from the source text where possible, especially if a company opts to go for a pure machine translation route.

MT often misses sarcasm and expressions, so it is advisable for translators to do at least a light review after a text has been machine translated.

If the sarcasm is key to the intended meaning, it is best to emphasize this and have the content localized so that a suitable local expression can be used by the translator

#9 Language Translation: Multiple Meanings

The same word can have different meanings, and this can make language translation difficult.

For example, in French “une feuille” can mean a leaf from a tree but also a sheet of paper.

“Bon” may mean good when describing something but if used as a noun means “voucher”.

In English, a scale can refer to a gadget that weighs something (like a baking scale), but it can also refer to fish scales, and in business, the word scale can mean to grow.

In every language, there are words with multiple meanings. A professional translator can ensure the language translation is done correctly.

Taia and Language Translations for your Business

Although the language translation process may be complex, it doesn’t have to be for your business. 

Taia’s platform gives you access to translators that are native to the regions you are targeting and are experts in your specific industry.

You can decide whether you want basic translation, or localization with detailed proofreading and revision.

With all this support on one platform, your business never needs to fear language translation again.


Taia is based in Europe but has native specialists based across the world. We specialize in translation and localization across all industries, continents, and in over 97 language pairs.

Sign up to our platform for free and start translating immediately, or book a demo with our team in your time zone.

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