The Top 5 Most Challenging Languages To Translate

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Many people believe that all languages are equally difficult to translate. But this is not the case. Some are inherently more difficult, even when translators are fluent in both languages.

A handful of languages require more effort to translate than others. For example, a word’s pronunciation can change meaning in these complex languages. Translating can be difficult when translators need help understanding the context. And grammar may differ significantly from the translator’s original language.

The reasons why some languages are more challenging to translate than others vary. However, the impact of the increased difficulty remains relatively consistent.

It often means additional effort and attention are required to achieve correctness. Given this, choosing a language service provider with extensive competence in the languages at hand is critical.

Why Some Languages Are Harder to Translate

Before revealing the five most difficult languages to translate, it’s critical to understand why difficulty varies based on the languages involved.

The key reasons why translating some languages into specific target languages are more complicated include the following: 

  • Not all languages share the same roots. Translating one language into another is generally more manageable when the languages share a common ancestor than when they do not. Similarly, differences in grammar and syntax between languages might pose difficulties.
  • In some cases, the pronunciation of a word changes its meaning. A word can have several meanings, the main difference being how it’s pronounced rather than spelled. That can cause problems when translating written texts.
  • Sometimes, a word in a specific language has the exact spelling and pronunciation but different meanings. It is critical to consider the context while translating such a word. Otherwise, an incorrect translation will likely result.
  • Variations in the number of characters may also play a role. When a language contains a large number of characters, there is more possibility for error, as minor character errors can substantially alter the meaning of the text.

 

Below, we’ll outline the top five most challenging languages to translate and why. We’ll also provide some context by briefly explaining the various languages and where they originated.

1. Mandarin Chinese

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Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in China. There are numerous dialects in China. Mandarin became the official language for different sections of the country to interact with one another. Beijing is China’s capital and the origin of Mandarin.

What makes translation so challenging?

The amount of characters is one of the reasons Mandarin Chinese is one of the most challenging languages to translate.

Mandarin has nearly 80,000 characters, each having unique pronunciation and sound because it is a tonal language. Most words have multiple meanings.

The tone of the word changes its meaning. A high level of interpretative abilities and creativity are required to convey the genuine meaning of the source material in a way that fits the purpose of the content and the intellectual level of the intended readers of the translation.

As a result, the translator must thoroughly comprehend the context of the material.

Furthermore, slight variations in the characters – some of which are virtually undetectable to the untrained eye – can radically alter the meanings. When you consider that pronunciation can change the essence of the definition, the picture becomes much more complicated.

While knowing 3,000 to 5,000 words is commonly considered full literacy, even competent translators may sometimes face new characters. As a result, Mandarin Chinese is complex to interpret.

How do translators approach Mandarin?

Translators must grasp Chinese culture and history to translate Mandarin effectively. Splitting sentences and understanding the context of a phrase helps considerably.

2. Arabic

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The Arabic language is known as a Proto-Semitic language in literature. As such, we classify Arabic in the Afro-Asiatic family of languages. Arabic exists in twenty-eight countries.

What makes translation so challenging?

Due to the large number of dialects, Arabic is one of the most challenging languages to translate. Mistranslations can occur if the translator is unfamiliar with the source or target dialect.

Reading and writing in Arabic must be done from right to left. Unlike most languages, which we read and write from left to right.

Another tricky part of Arabic is the formation of letters. Because dialectical influences on the language vary depending on the placement of these letters, translating Arabic is challenging because it impacts word pronunciation.

Translators must carefully evaluate the intended target audience to achieve an accurate translation.

Also, Arabic is another language in which words can have many meanings. Translators must choose the appropriate words because a single topic can be described in various ways, influencing the context when the end-user speaks a different dialect of Arabic.

Finally, written Arabic only contains consonants, not vowels, adding to the difficulties.

How do translators approach Arabic?

Because Arabic has many dialects, most translators return to the original dialect before translating to another language.

3. Korean

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Korean is a linguistic isolate and significantly different from any other language in the world because it shares no common roots with other languages.

That is highly unusual because most languages have some ancestry in another language. However, the modern Korean language contains vocabulary derived from neighboring Japan and China.

What makes translation so challenging?

Korean translation is difficult due to pronunciation issues. The language’s grammar rules are also highly different.

Korean sentences are constructed entirely differently than in most other languages. Another reason Korean is challenging to translate is that it contains more than a million words. Translating many words into a language with far fewer words can be difficult.

How do translators approach Korean?

Most translators separate terms while translating from Korean into another language. That’s because many words are formed of single-syllable words. The more syllables you know, the easier it is to translate.

4. Thai

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Thailand’s official language is Thai. It uses the Khmer script, which has no relation to any other language outside of its own. Thai is a monosyllabic language introduced in 1283.

It connects to the languages spoken in Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Yunnan. Thai is a tonal language like Chinese, with each tone conveying a different meaning.

What makes translation so challenging?

Thai has roughly five dozen consonants and vowels, which adds to the complexity. There are no lower or upper case letters in Thai, and sentences do not conclude in full stops. There are also no spaces between the words.

Translators must be aware of the sentence context and adverbs that imply tenses rather than verbs. Adverbs and adjectives are challenging because they appear behind the verb or noun.

Standard Thai has numerous distinct forms or registers, each with its own set of pronouns, verbs, and qualifying nouns.

How do translators approach Thai?

To translate Thai correctly, translators must first understand the context of the source text. Also, knowing many separate words is helpful when pulling longer sentences apart and reassembling them into the correctly translated text.

5. Hungarian

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Hungarian is a language spoken in Hungary since the ninth century. This language has been around for around 3,000 years. It was a nomadic language spoken by the Onogouroi tribes.

That is where the term “Hungarian” originated. The Turkish community and language have an impact on Hungarian. Because both languages share similar terms and meanings, you will see Turkish influence in Hungarian.

What makes translation so challenging?

Because of its grammatical rules, Hungarian is complex to translate. It has rules that are entirely different from those of the English language. Aside from that, the Hungarian language uses idioms that are difficult to grasp if you are not a native speaker.

Despite having only 26 characters, Hungarian features some of the most intricate grammar rules of any language. Suffixes play a role in the language to an extent not seen in most other languages, which might lead to misunderstanding.

How do translators approach Hungarian?

Translators must be aware of the culture and context of sentences. Getting acquainted with the culture will aid translators in deciphering the various idioms. Knowing a little Turkish will also assist in translating this complex language correctly.

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