Today we’re going to look at a few common problems that you can encounter when you begin translating between English and your new language. Translating between any two languages is inherently difficult. Differences in syntax, word meaning, culture, and a host of other factors can tax the language skills of even the most experienced translators and interpreters. If you’d like to see just how challenging this process can be, try the following. Find a short article in English. Translate it into the language that you are learning, and set it aside for long enough that you forget the exact wording of the English version. Now try translating it back it into English. Compare your re-translation to the article that you started with. Your translation will likely be different, possibly very different, from the original article.
Worlds with Multiple Meanings
Commonly-used words often have multiple meanings. This is true for all languages, including English and the language that you are currently learning. The meaning behind a particular usage of a word may translate to an entirely different word in another language. Consider the meanings of the word “bank.” When you see this word, you probably think of a financial institution. However, bank can also refer to the raised edge of a river. Furthermore, bank can also be used as a verb. To “bank” on someone or something means to count or rely on that person or thing. While the various definitions of “bank” are fairly distinct, sometimes the differences in meaning are far more subtle. In other instances there is not a single, definitive translation of how a word is being used. Multiple words might provide an equally-accurate translation of the meaning of a particular English word in context. Occasionally there is no literal equivalent of an English word in another language, or vice-versa.
While most Western European languages include articles, their usages may different from familiar “the, a, and an” of English. “The president” usually refers to the current president of the United States, but “a president” could mean the president of any country, organization, or club. Translating articles gets even trickier with languages that do not share a cultural or linguistic history with English. Hindi, for example, lacks a definite article, and the various Slavic languages contain no articles whatsoever.
Verbs Tense and Verb-Adverb Combinations
English’s limited verb forms can make translating to and from other languages surprisingly difficult. One of the ways that English gets around these limitations is by attaching helping verbs to simple verbs. Except for simple present and simple past, all of the verb tenses in English are constructed with this way. Another trick for getting around the limited nature of English verbs is verb-adverb combinations. Expressions such as “turn on” and “turn off” are unique to English. Other languages don’t need to use these linguistic workarounds. They contain specific, stand-alone verbs that convey all the same information.
Translating sentences containing figurative language can be especially challenging. A literal translation of an idiom from one language to another can result in a phrase that is nonsensical or even offensive. When translating between English and your new language, you should consider the meaning behind an idiom or metaphor rather than the phrase itself. Replace the English saying with something from your target language that conveys the same basic idea. If you can’t think of an appropriate linguistic analog, it’s better to say what you mean literally than to risk confusing or offending native speakers of your new language.