Challenges faced by language translators

30th May 2018

Life isn’t always easy for professional translators. It’s a rewarding profession but can be extremely demanding at times. Translators understand the linguistic nuances required to deliver a job but each translation job is unique and can uncover new challenges.

The way languages are structured

Some languages are more complex than others and so is the way they are structured. The five main components of language are phonemes, morphemes, lexemes, syntax, and context. Along with grammar, semantics, and pragmatics, these components work together to create meaningful communication among individuals.

Every language is different. In English, an adjective comes before a noun (“red house”), whereas in Spanish, the adjective comes after (“casa [house] roja [red].”).

Germans put noun after noun together to form giant compound words; in Chinese, the pitch of your voice determines the meaning of your words. All languages have structural underpinnings that make them logical for the people who speak and understand them.

Various factors need to be taken into consideration including idioms, expressions, dialects and false friends. This makes the translation a lot more complex.


Each language group has a diverse way of communication, way of expressing their emotions, feelings and understanding the world around them. Their culture is created based on traditions, beliefs, values, norms and symbols, shared to varying degrees by members of a particular community. This leads to cultural differences expressed in different attitudes, morals and folkways which will affect the language translation. Consider the case of the chocolate company that introduced a new chocolate bar with peanuts in Japan. The chocolate bar didn’t sell because Japanese folklore suggested that eating chocolate with peanuts leads to nosebleeds.

Missing terms and compound words

1. Translating compound words

Compound words are a combination of two or more words that function as a single unit of meaning.

For example:

butter + fly = butterfly

cup + cake = cupcake

There are three different types of compound words:

  • Closed form: two words are joined together to create a new meaning (firefly, softball, redhead, keyboard, makeup, notebook).
  • Hyphenated form: words joined together by a hyphen (six-pack, mass-produced, mother-in-law)
  • Open form: created from open words that when put together create a new meaning (full moon, real estate, post office)

Some compound words are easy to understand and translate whereas other compound words actually mean the opposite of what they are referring to.

2. Missing terms and language translation

Often certain words or phrases that exist in one language don’t exist in another and it’s the translator’s job to find the most relevant equivalent.

Multiple meanings

You often find that some words have no direct equivalent in another language (missing words) whilst others have more than one meaning.

  • Homonyms are words which have the same spelling and pronunciation, but have different meanings (date: My favourite fruit to eat is a date./James took Alex out on a date.)
  • Homophones are words which have the same pronunciation, but different spellings and meanings (pale/pail; ate/eight; red/read)
  • Homographs are words that are spelt the same, but have different pronunciations and meanings (wind: The wind swept up the leaves./Wind the clock up before you go to bed.)

This is where translation work requires precision. Translators must have a good knowledge of vocabulary of both languages, an ability to deal with differences in meaning and use various sources such as dictionaries and reference books to discover suitable terms.

Sector expertise

Translators often have an in-depth expertise in a particular field. This makes it easier for them when working on a variety of sector specific projects and documents (legal, marketing documents, brochures, websites) and ensures the delivered results are accurate and reliable.

Looking for help with translation, ask Foreign Tongues. We work with experienced, local translators, worldwide. You can request the free quote here and we will get back to you immediately.

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