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Difficulties in Language Translation

Updated on March 1, 2020
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Melanie enjoys learning new languages and studying etymology and the relationships between languages. Follow her on Instagram @ValpoMedia


When translating from one language to another, elements of the original text can be lost in translation. Anyone who has attempted translating something will notice that a translation can result in sometimes odd and awkward language.

Poetic and otherwise 'pretty' structure of the original text isn't all that can be lost. In fact, an entire message can be completely altered.

As follows are a few of the various ways in which a text can be altered, reasons why they're altered, and how this is unavoidable.

Losing the Meaning

As a gift from a cousin who, at the time, was studying abroad in Hungary, I received a small wooden plaque with Garfield painted on it along with some Hungarian text. Garfield, known for his witty/sarcastic complaints, is pictured sitting at a desk and appears to be bored out of his mind. The text around the witty cat is indecipherable to me. It reads, “Hajszolom a tudást. De gyorsabb nálam.”

A foreign exchange student from Hungary, Mariann, who was staying with us, helped me learn the meaning behind the cryptic message on the plaque. Mariann chuckled when she read the plaque and then explained to me that there was no right way to explain what it meant in English.

She gave me a long, beat-around-the-bush explanation of the message, but at this point, it was only vaguely funny: “I'm trying to chase learning, but it's faster than me.”

Playing Telephone: Translating a Translation

The above isn't the only example of meaning getting lost in translation. There are hundreds of different versions of the Bible, with many translations touting that it's the best translation.

The Bible, like many written works, is full of metaphors, slang tied to the culture at the time of its writing, bits of poetry, and even strings meant to be taken literally. When metaphors, slang, poetry, and literal strings appear in modern works, at least there is a living, breathing native speaker around to sort out any issues. When an ancient document containing these elements, is translated, it's a recipe for disaster! This effect can be worsened when a language is layered on top of another (a translation of a translation.)

Some modern-day translations branch right off the Greek version of the Bible, however, these translators may want to consider that the Bible was originally written in Hebrew and then later translated into Greek.


The Plight of Translators & Interpretors

Translators must be able to understand various elements of their native language, the language they're translating from, and the document they're translating. A translator isn't someone who just looks up a word in a dictionary, translating a document word for word. In fact, translation is a moving and growing field!

The very definition of what a translator does also serves to describe the difficulty and tedium involved in such work, “systematic study of the theory, the description and the application of translation,"1 A translator has to take many things into consideration including:

  • The language from which the text is being translated

  • The language to which the text is being translated

  • Culture (either regarding the cultural differences between speakers of the source language and speakers of the target language or regarding “the culture of the day.” The Bible is a prime example of the latter.)

  • The personality of the writer (this includes any biases he or she may bring to the table.)

While considering the above, a translator will likely hit a few snares. For example, in the translation of the Bible, translators have met phrases that could mean one thing or another. A famous example of this is “The Song of Solomon” where the writer is describing a relationship with a woman using terms of kinship, namely 'sister,' to describe closeness with an individual. The text attempts to convey a close bond and a level of equality with a woman, not an incestuous relationship with a sister.2


Problems with Google Translate & Other Web Translators

As a more colorful example of meaning getting lost in translation, take a look at the following phrase: “A computer translator will take everything literally."

I translated this phrase into Bengali using Google translate “একটি কম্পিউটার অনুবাদক সবকিছু আক্ষরিক অর্থ গ্রহণ করা হবে,” and then took the Bengali and translated it into Greek, “Τα πάντα πρέπει να ληφθεί κυριολεκτικά μεταφράζεται από έναν υπολογιστή.” Finally, I took the Greek version and translated it back into English, “Everything must be taken literally translates from one computer.”

What does “Everything must be taken literally translates from one computer,” mean? Of course, given that I know the original English meaning, I felt my thoughts would be either be biased toward the original English version (since I created the example) or toward something wildly different (since I'm trying to make a point.) I asked a few unsuspecting friends to take the sentence, “Everything must be taken literally translates from one computer,” throw out what didn't make sense, and turn it into a complete thought.

Out of five friends, two responded with, “I don't understand the sentence” and three were able to make their own sentences:

“Everything must be literally translated from the brain as if it acts as our computer.”

“Everything from the main computer should be taken literally.”

“Literally everything from the one computer must be translated.”

This example serves to illustrate three things:

  • When translating something literally, as Google Translate often does, the meaning can be skewed.

  • How human translators are forced to fill in the gaps using what information they have. In the above case, the translators (my friends), had no context to go by other than keywords in the phrase and the fact that I was picking their brains for a linguistics project.

  • Why a translator should consider the influences of their own environment when translating. The respondents who were able to create sentences, (in the order of the responses) are a polysomnographer who studies the sleeping brain using a computer (it was the tie between this response and this person's employment that I found particularly noteworthy), an Engineering Technology major, and a machine operator.

Original: "J'ai Pas Vingt Ans"

English Version: "I'm Not Twenty"

Keeping the Beat: Changing Meaning on Purpose

The skewing of meaning isn't always accidental. In some cases, the definition is skewed so the text can fit certain parameters. This is a frequent occurrence in poetry and music where syllables of words are incredibly important to keep a certain beat.

Two of my favorite examples of this are found the songs, “J'ai Pas Vingt Ans” and “Boten Anna.” In the case of “J'ai Pas Vingt Ans,” you're presented with a beautiful flow of sound from the French hit artist, Alizée.3

To seek popularity among American listeners, Alizée released an English version of the song. The English version, “I'm Not Twenty,” contains painful lyrics like, “...write me poetry, if you're okie dokie,” and “let’s do boogie-woogie.”4

On the other hand, there's the Swedish song, “Boten Anna.”5 The Swedish lyrics are about a hacker who falls in love with a woman online only to find out that she's a bot (a computer program.) The English version, “Now You're Gone” have lyrics that fit the beat very well, however, while the tune of this version is the same, the lyrics were changed to reflect an entirely different storyline.6

The Causes of Poor Translation

What accounts for problems in translation? There are a wide number of issues involving the translation of a text.

Bringing idioms and language style over from the source language to the target language are major problem areas for translation. Interestingly enough, the carrying over of idioms, loanwords, and style also served to shape the target language over time.7


Differences in Grammar

The differences in the grammar of the two languages can also account for translation difficulties.8

For example, in English, you would say, “She is going to the store.” In Italian, you would say, “Lei va al negozio,” which would translate to, “She goes to the store.”9 The verb “to be” would be strange here. “To be” is the state of being something. You can be a good person; you can be tall or be short. You can't be 'going.' “Going” is a verb; you can't be it, at least not in Italian.

There is another thing to consider. Take the sentence, “I want a pizza.” In Italian, this could be, “Io voglio una pizza.” However, given “voglio” is the Io (I) conjugation of the verb “volere” (to want,) an Italian speaker could just say, “voglio una pizza.”10 The “Io” is unnecessary. Italian listeners would understand that it's the speaker who wants the pizza.

In English, if you were to say, “Want a pizza,” listeners wouldn't know who wants the pizza. Do I want a pizza? Do they want a pizza? We? Italian isn't a fuller or richer language, but these examples do shed some light on how languages differ and, in turn, show the difficulties that are involved in translation.

Another example of how grammar can affect translation is found in the meaning behind double negatives. Many languages, like French, have 'negative concord.' Negative concord means when a double negative is used, it intensifies the negation.11 Modern English doesn't have negative concord, so when double negatives are used, they cancel each other out (and their usage is also often stigmatized.)

A translator should be aware of the rules in both the source and target languages to prevent potentially significant problems in translation. An error here could change the meaning of a phrase from, “I would prefer to not go to school,” to, “There is no way I'm going to school.” While it's true the writer in both cases doesn't want to go to school, both the degree to which the author dislikes school and the tone of the sentence change considerably.

Culture in Translation

Problems in translation aren't limited to grammar. The cultures of the original author of the text, the translator, and the target audience of the translated version all have to be examined. The problem here is twofold.

Should a translator take the original piece and turn it into something easily digested by the readers of the target-language (use ideas and slang popular in the target culture) or should he translate it such a way that reader should consider it in the context of the culture from which the text originated?


When text is being translated from one language to another, it’s easily altered (this is unavoidable.) There are many variables at play when a text is translated which include. Differences in the source and target languages also play a part in issues with translation. As I have demonstrated, grammar and negative concord are two problems that have to be considered when “comparing” two languages. Even a noun can throw off translation. For example, the usage of the word “sister” in “The Song of Solomon” may cause some readers/translators to believe that the writer speaks of an incestuous relationship. This is an example where culture and word usage come into play.

When some pieces of text are translated, they can lose their purpose. The purpose of the painted Garfield plaque was to make the reader laugh. There is no doubt that this was funny to a Hungarian, but when translated into English, the plaque wasn’t funny. Regarding poetry and music, aesthetics play a huge role in whether or not an audience will enjoy a piece. A certain beat must be kept for a song to sound okay. Thus, when a song is translated, the translator has to be wary of syllables, especially pertaining to whether they’re cramming too many syllables into a measure or too few! If this doesn’t make a translator’s life hard, they have to consider which words are acceptable in the target language. “Okie dokie,” for example, seemingly has no place in American pop music.

As you can see, there are a huge number of obstacles involved in the translation of a piece. Even when taking all of the above into account, a translator will still finish with a piece that is different from the original.

In a letter to A.W. Schlegel, dated July 23, 1796, linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt sums up the burden of translating, “All translation seems to be simply an attempt to solve an impossible task. Every translator is doomed to be done in by one of two stumbling blocks: he will either stay too close to the original (at the cost of taste and the language of his nation), or he will adhere too closely to the characteristics peculiar to his nation, at the cost of the original.”12


1. "Translation." Wikipedia.
2. "Five Mistakes in Your Bible Translation." The Huffington Post.
3. "Alizée - J'ai Pas Vingt Ans." YouTube.
4. "Alizee - I'm Not Twenty." YouTube.
5. UltraRecords. "Basshunter - Boten Anna." YouTube.
6. UltraRecords. "Basshunter - Now You're Gone." YouTube.
7. "The Translator's Endless Toil." The Polish Review
8. "Translating from One Language to Another." University of Surrey
9. Lazzarino. Prego! An Invitation to Italian. McGraw-Hill, 2011.
10. 501 Italian Verbs. Barron's, 2007.
11. "Double Negative." Wikipedia.
12. "The Translator's Dialogue." Giovanni Pontiero.

© 2013 Melanie


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    • liesl5858 profile image

      Linda Bryen 

      2 years ago from United Kingdom

      I love translating Spoken Kuwaiti Arabic to English but I get stuck sometimes. And you are right there is always the wrong translations of words of foreign languages especially if it is not your own language. I love the videos. Well done.

    • Emese Fromm profile image

      Emese Fromm 

      4 years ago from The Desert

      Very good article! I am a translator and in fact my mother tongue is Hungarian ( so yes, I found your Garfield example funny). I run into the problems you described every day. I gave up translating for a while because of some of the frustration. It is especially hard to translate between English and Hungarian, since the languages and their structures are so very different. You basically need to rewrite every single sentence. I had a good laugh once when I plugged in a text to google translate just to make this very point. The "translation" was so far from the original, it didn't even mean closely the same thing.

      Anyway, great hub! Thank you for bringing this to your readers' attention.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 

      6 years ago from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA

      One of my brothers wrote a translation of Tao The Ching, published by Anusara in 2004. In the Introduction he says of the original, "Its spare, enigmatic language has encouraged many translators to import images and concepts from their own cultural traditions into the ancient Chinese text." Like, one 19th century translation I found online makes the Tao The Ching read like an apology for British colonialism. My brother shaped his translation on the basis of his convictions concerning who the early Taoists were and how they and Confucianists used the same terms differently.

      Excellent hub. Up, Useful, and Interesting.


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