What Makes Translation So Difficult

What Makes Translation So Difficult?

The earliest language is believed to have evolved between 50,000 and 150,000 years ago, which is around the time when modern humans emerged. Today, over 7,000 languages exist.

The sheer number of languages now available makes translation so challenging, but what exactly are the reasons?

What Makes Translation So Difficult?

Most linguists face these challenges when it comes to translation.

1 - Idioms

An idiom is an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own.

In order to translate idioms accurately, a translator must understand the exact meaning of each phrase. This is especially challenging since dictionaries often limit definitions to a few words or expressions.

For example, the idiom ‘ringan tangan’ in Bahasa Indonesia.

Ringan: light

Tangan: hand

In English, light-hand(ed) means having a light, delicate touch or having little to carry. In Bahasa Indonesia, ‘ringan tangan’ means someone who likes to help or someone who likes to hit.

When you add the suffix -nya and change the idiom to ‘ringan tangannya’, the meaning becomes ’the (weight of the) person’s hand is light.’

It is not enough for linguists to know the correct meaning of the idiom; they should also discover alternative ways to express the same idea in their target language. That is why translating idioms are hard.

2 - Humour

Humours like puns take advantage of the ambiguities of words or phrases. Low (2011) explains that puns present a significant challenge for translators since they draw on the particular features of a particular language.

Yuliasri and Allen (2019) wrote a beautiful example.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, JK Rowling wrote the following:

“Welcome," said Hagrid, “to Diagon Alley.”

In Bahasa Indonesia, this phrase is translated to: “Selamat datang”, kata Hagrid, “di Diagon Alley.”

When the sentence is translated back to English, it becomes: “Welcome,” said Hagrid, “to Diagon Alley.”

According to Yuliasri and Allen (2019):

Here the humour is totally reliant on wordplay. The name of the alley is a quirky play on ‘alley’ and the adverbial ending ‘-ally’, with the name ‘Diagon Alley’ sounding like the adverb ‘diagonally’. Using the borrowing technique, the translator chose to simply retain the English words; as a result, neither the meaning nor the pun is captured.

Despite retaining its meaning, the pun failed to exist when it is translated to Bahasa Indonesia.

Another example as written by Yuliasri and Allen (2019) is still in the Harry Potter case.

English (source): “her sister and her good-for-nothing husband were as unDursleyish as it was possible to be.”

Bahasa Indonesia (target): “adiknya dan suaminya yang tidak berguna itu tidak layak sama sekali menjadi kerabat keluarga Dursley.”

English (back translation): “her sister and her useless husband were not at all worthy of inclusion in the Dursley family.”

In English, while the intent is similar, the term “good-for-nothing” has a more scornful tone than simply “useless”. This level of scorn has not been retained in the Indonesian

The translator also expands “unDursleyish” as “unworthy of being a member of the family”.

Although the translation is correct, the context can be interpreted differently by an Indonesian reader.

3 - Culture

In certain cultures, calling people older than you by their name is considered rude.

For example, let’s say you are watching a K-drama. In the drama, 2 sisters are having a conversation.

Hye-young: 언니, 밥 먹었어요? (Mi-young, have you eaten?)

Mi-young: 네, 밥 먹었어요. (Yes, I have eaten.)

In Korea, a female will call an older male as 오빠 (oppa) and an older female as 언니 (eonni).

In the example above, the word 언니 (eonni) was swapped with the other person’s name, which is Mi-young. This is because there is no English equivalent for oppa and eonni in English.

The Korean culture considers it very rude to call your older sister by her name, but an English-speaking person will find this normal. Translation can therefore be very hard for people who do not have access to culture-specific information.

4 - Words that have no translation equivalent

Finding an alternative expression in another language becomes a challenge when a particular language has a special word for describing a situation or an item.

In Bahasa Indonesia, separate terms are used when trying to describe rice.

Beras when translated to English means rice. However, it is the form of rice before it is cooked.

Nasi, on the other hand, is rice after it is cooked.

So the sentence ‘Saya sedang mencuci beras untuk memasak nasi’ when translated in English becomes: I am washing the rice to cook rice.

5 - Grammar

Each language has a different grammar structure.

Unlike other languages, Indonesian does not make use of grammatical gender, and there are only selected words that use natural gender.

For example, in English, you can refer to a person as he or she. He and she are both translated to ‘dia’ in Indonesian. Therefore, if you do not know the context, you won’t be able to know whether the person someone is talking about is male or female.

Let’s see the sentence below.

English (source): “She is cooking.”

Bahasa Indonesia (target): “Dia sedang memasak.”

English (back translation): “The person is cooking.”

When translated back to English, the word ‘she’ has now become ’the person’ because the word ‘dia’ in Bahasa Indonesia does not give a context whether the subject is male or female.


In this article, we have discussed the 5 top reasons that make translation so difficult.

Do you relate to any of the above? Which one do you think is the most challenging issue?

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