What the hardest languages to translate have in common

Next week we are going to see a list of the hardest languages to translate to and from English. Before revealing our list though, let’s have a look at a few selection criteria. Here are five elements that helped decide whether a language would be hard or easy to translate. Again, we’re talking of translations to and from English.

Here’s what we based our decision on:

#1. The hardest languages to translate has radically different semantics from English.

If you’ve ever taken a French class, you may have noticed how similar these two language can be at times. That’s because English shares about a third of its vocabulary with French. So it’s fair to say that a common vocabulary makes translation somewhat easier (though there are some pitfalls with this as well).

French words used in English.
French words are sometimes used “as is” in English, but there are lots more English words that originated from old French.

With that example, it’s fair to say that French is not the hardest to translate. And since French shares a “common ancestor” with other Romance languages (latin), this language group is not part of our selection.

#2. The language’s syntax is far from the English one.

Japanese to English translator image shows how different their syntaxes can be.
Japanese syntax is most of the time completely different from the English Subject – Verb – Object.

Germanic languages (English, Dutch, Swedish, etc.) share many characteristics. Their sentence structures is one. If you looked at a Dutch text and its word-for-word English translation side by side, you would not feel like it’s “Yoda English”.

The hardest languages to translate do not have this shared syntax with English. A non-native speaker would probably not be able to intuitively put together coherent sentences.

If you looked at a Japanese translator working, you’d see they would have to read full paragraphs before being able to start their translations. That’s more complex work than in other languages.

#3. The writing system is based on a non-latin alphabet.

Do you know what “перевод” in Russian and “翻译” in Chinese mean?

They both mean “Translation”. If you see a word written in Italian, Spanish, or even Turkish, you might not be able to pronounce it correctly, but you could at least give it a try. Translators for Japanese, Korean, Russian, or Chinese never have this option. They have to master a language completely before being able to even read or write their first words in it.

Chinese simplified and traditional are different.
Even the “simplified” Chinese characters are a mystery to readers who are not familiar with them.

#4. The grammar rules are also dissimilar to English.

Even though German is closely related to English, it is a level of complexity higher than other Germanic languages, and even than Romance languages.

The reason? Grammar. The way verbs, but also nouns have different grammatical case endings depending on their role in a sentence.

Complex grammar rules add a level of difficulty to any translation work. So the hardest language to translate would have grammar that is not necessarily very difficult, but difficult for translation to and from English.

5# Cultural references are not directly transferable.

If you showed a watermelon to a Swiss man, he would identify it immediately. That’s because you both have the same frame of reference for what that thing is.

But unless you’re interested in Japan and Japanese daily life, you may not know what a kotatsupurikura, or otōshi are.

Ancient picture of a woman using a kotatsu, a Japanese heated table.
Apparently, the kotatsu dates way back.

As a translator, you have several choices to make. The first one is: “Do I translate this word?” It’s doable. But since there is no direct English equivalent, maybe you can leave it in Japanese. In that case, do you write a few words to explain what it means after? Maybe a note might be more appropriate. Does the format you are using allow for long translations?

Just to give an example, Susa-no-o is a famous Japanese deity. His name literally translates to “The Impetuous Male”. But how do you convey that meaning? Should you use a translation throughout your text, or just once?

The more of these questions a translator has, the more complex his or her work.

So what’s the hardest language to translate?

You are probably already thinking of some languages that will fit all criteria. But how do they really rank? Check in next week to find out!