The hardest thing in translation

January 24, 2022
Juan Bravo

Translation is not an easy task. Languages have been evolving for thousands of years to become completely different from each other, not only considering vocabulary but on many different levels. These days the need of proper translation is greater than ever, people have developed Artificial Intelligence translators and other tools, yet those are not able to solve some of the biggest complications of translation. When it comes to official documents or any highly important text, you cannot rely on AI. You need a true specialist. In this article we will present you with some of the most common translation problemsand explain why AI won’t solve them.

some words difficult to translate

Why are some words difficult to translate?

As mentioned before, languages have been evolving with people for thousand years, in many different places. Every ethnic group have encountered different challenges, they had different values, traditions, culture, etc. Due to this, there are some concepts which are present in one culture but not in another. This makes some words impossible to translate directly.  Cultural issues in translation are significant problem.

A word can be difficult to translate due to cultural context, a good example would be “you” which is known as one of the hardest words to translate. It may seem simple, but it is the case only in English. In many languages such as Spanish or Russian for example, “you” is very different, depending on situation, people involved in the conversation, context and relationship between them. “You” can be formal or informal, what’s makes it even more difficult in some cultures you speak formally in different situations. Koreans for example tend to address their parents in a formal way. Another example of cultural context which shaped the use of “you” can be seen in Polish.In the past the formal version of you was used only among the nobility, to show respect. Peasants adapted this way of speech to pretend that they are part of the more privileged group and right now it is used among everybody in formal situations. To make “you” even more complicated, in some languages it will be different, depending if you address male or female. Formal and informal “you” can both have their own feminine and masculine version. As we can see, translating of such a simple word is difficult and dependent from variety of factors. In many situations a wrong translation of “you” can make you appear rude or ignorant. Another challenge in translation is possibly even worse than “you”.  It’s translating the words cannot be translated.

Which words cannot be translated?

There are some words which cannot be translated into different languages for one simple reason. There is no such word in targeted language. Some societies have developed single words for something which is simply described in different ones. Let’s have a look at some examples:

Pochemuchka – a person that asks to many questions in Russian.

Shlimazl – person constantly suffering from bad luck in Yiddish.

Llunga – ability to forgive somebody first times, accept it the second one, but no the third. Used in Democratic Republic of Congo by Luba-Kasai language speakers.

Sobremesa – Spanish word for a chat after a meal.

Shoganai – Used to express ‘it is what it is‘, ‘it can’t be helped‘ or ‘Oh, well, there’s nothing we can do about it!‘. It expresses acceptance of a bad situation or defeatism.

Saudade – a feeling of missing somebody or something which the person loved but is lost.

Utepils – a word which means “sitting outside while drinking beer” in Norwegian.

Jayus – in Indonesian it means a joke that’s so badly told and so unfunny that it actually makes you laugh.

Ya’aburnee – expression of love which indicates that the person saying it wants to die and be buried before the loved one, as he/she would suffer greatly otherwise. Used in Arabic.

These types of words are among the biggest translation difficulties that professionals in the industry need to face on a daily basis. In this case it is important to have deep knowledge of language and high level of fluency. The truth is that most languages have some words which are present only there. Describing the terms to which these words are referring may seem unnatural in the targeted language.

What is the most commonly translated word in the world?

According to Google translate the most commonly translated world is “beautiful”. Other common ones are: good, love and mama, closely followed by names of the week days.

The most translated text in the world, is not surprising. It is Bible, which has been translated into 469 languages. Impressive as it was not easy to translate archaic Hebrew, Aramaic and later Latin into most of the known languages.

Translation is a hard task, it requires expertise, knowledge and fluency if about to be precise. Translation challenges should never be ignored and requires professional approach. If you are in need of specialists able to solve any translation problem, contact our team at TranslateDay.


2 Comments. Leave new

“Shoganai – a situation which you cannot control in Japanese.”

I’d be interested to know where you got (read?) this.
Shōganai is not a situation. It is, rather, something that one says to express being in a situation which you cannot control; typically translated as, for instance, ‘It can’t be helped’, or more colloquially, ‘Whaddaya gonna do?’

I imagine you more of less knew that but I thought I’d tweak it in case you didn’t, or someone else comes along and gets the wrong end of the stick — or even the wrong stick!

Thanks for the article


Thanks for your feedback John! You are completely right, we updated the article to reflect your insight. Best regards.


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