The difficulties of translation

The difficulties of translation

For any languages, there are many cultural and linguistic subtleties. This article presents the principal difficulties of translation.

“Being a translator is easy, you just have to know English, right?” No, you don’t just turn into a translator after a few days’ total immersion, and Yes, it is somewhat harder than deciphering a menu in a Spanish restaurant. It’s high time we put an end to these preconceived notions about translation.

Translating is about transmitting intentions, feelings and implicit messages, without failing to respect the subtleties, idiosyncrasies and inherent beauty of a language. Translating means handling communications and poetry at the same time. Juggling anthropology and linguistics. Being both psychologist and writer. Let’s take a look at some of the difficulties associated with this wonderful profession.


Even if a term is common this doesn’t mean it’s easy to translate.

Let’s see what happens in Latin America. How can one be a good translator in this region of the globe when something as basic as “fresa” (“strawberry” in most Spanish-speaking countries), is also the term used to refer to a teenager from a well-to-do family in Mexico, a homosexual in Colombia and a person with a very high opinion of themselves in Ecuador while in Argentina they call this delicious berry “una frutilla” (literally: “a little fruit”)?

Even worse, “el chucho”, is a prison in Chile, a dog in Mexico and a house pet of any sort in Spain. In Venezuela, if your name is “Jesus” (a typical Hispanic name), they’ll call you Chucho, while in Guatemala “chuchos” are lovers and in Honduras, they’re cheapskates.

So many words seem quite trivial, but are actually brimming with all kinds of connotations.

False friends

So let’s talk about these famous “false friends”. How can you possibly trust someone who calls danger a “hazard” and yet hazards a guess at something? False friends are these terms which, at first glance, get translated literally, but actually have very different meanings.

In Britain, you are advised to visit a physician when you look pale, and not to buy a casket if you are suffering from sunstroke. As for the United States, on graduation day do not be surprised if you are invited to a Commencement ceremony.

Puns and jokes

But without a doubt, a translator’s worst nightmare are word games! And it must be admitted that some languages, in particular English, employ these to excess.

Faced with such challenges, the translator has few resources at his disposal and usually end up having to use their imagination.

If jokes make people laugh, it’s most likely because they make a cultural reference. It is here that the translator’s comic talents come into play (no pun intended). The task is to find a cultural equivalent which finds an echo with the audience without undermining the original joke.

Let’s take the example of Haribo, whose original slogan is: “Haribo macht Kinder froh, und Erwachsene ebenso”, which literally means: Haribo makes children happy and adults as well. The words froh and ebenso rhyme, which led to “Haribo c’est beau la vie, pour les grands et les petits” in French, and prompted “Kids and grown-ups love it so – the happy world of Haribo” in English-speaking countries.

Unfortunately, there is no perfect translation, and the translator may have to resort to an explanation, at the expense of the comic aspects involved.

So, you still think translation is easy?

Discover our translation agency.

This article has been written by Gaelle Hardy

Graduated from the University of Liège (Belgium) in interpretation, Gaëlle completed her internship at Cultures Connection in Argentina.