When it comes to translating various texts, it’s often assumed that this type of work is equally challenging regardless of the language in question. However, this is far from the truth – it’s actually quite the opposite.
Why are some languages more difficult to translate than others?
One of the key reasons why certain languages are more challenging to translate than others lies in the fact that not all languages share common roots. If two languages share a common origin, then translating from one to the other is much easier. Additionally, variations in grammar and syntax between the two languages can also create difficulties during translation, as well as those situations when altering the pronunciation of a word also changes its entire meaning. When translating such words, it’s important to pay attention to context. Otherwise, the wrong translation might end up being used.
What especially causes problems in translation is when the language being translated and the one it is being translated into feature different characters. The more different characters there are, the greater the room for error, as even the slightest mistakes can lead to significant changes in the meaning of the text.
Now that the reasons why some languages are harder to translate than others are clear, let’s see…
5 hardest languages to translate
One of the reasons why Mandarin Chinese is one of the most challenging languages to translate is the sheer number of characters it contains. Although most agree that there are at the very least more than 50.000 characters and the common belief is that the number is actually closer to 80.000 characters, the truth is that it’s not actually known how many characters there are exactly in that language.
Additionally, the incredibly subtle differences in characters (some of which are so minute that laypeople might never even notice them) can drastically alter the meaning. Adding to that the dilemma of whether certain characters should be pronounced one way or the other, it complicates the matters even further. Although knowing 3.000 to 5.000 characters of the Chinese alphabet is usually considered full literacy, the translators who are fluent in this language can still encounter unfamiliar characters that makes translation to and from Mandarin Chinese even harder.
Arabic is considered one of the most difficult languages to translate due to its huge number of dialects. It is easy to come up with inaccurate translations simply because the translator might not be familiar with the source or target dialect.
Another challenging aspect of the Arabic language is the way that letters are formed. Namely, each letter can serve one of many purposes depending on its position within the word. Finally, written Arabic includes only the consonants and no vowels, which further complicates translation.
The Thai language developed mostly without any influence from other languages. In addition, its letters are a form of the Khmer script which is not widely used. This language also features around fifty vowels and consonants, making it even more difficult to translate.
In some cases, there is no difference between words in Thai and it can also happen that there are no traditional full-stops for sentences. On top of all of that, the Thai language doesn’t use lower- or upper-case letters and it doesn’t have plural form. As the result, translating to or from this language can be very challenging indeed.
This is another language that has developed in relative isolation from the world, making its grammar very incompatible with many established norms. Pronunciation in Korean can also frequently impact the meaning of the words, making it very difficult to translate.
Another reason why Korean is so difficult to translate is the sheer number of words it contains. For example, the Oxford English language dictionary contains around 170.000 words, while its Korean edition features over a million. The result of this, as you might guess, is a very high translation difficulty.
While the Hungarian language features only 26 characters, it also has some of the most complex grammar rules. For example, suffixes play a very important role in this language to a degree not often seen in other languages, which might cause confusion. For example, suffixes can be used to establish tension in the tone or emphasize ownership, which is not the case in most other languages. Additionally, idioms are a key part of the Hungarian language. This means that the cultural context often plays a vital role in the meaning of the text, making Hungarian all the more difficult for translating.
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