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Top 5 Most Challenging Languages to Translate

Introduction #

Some languages are more challenging than others when translating to and from English. This difficulty may be because of certain grammatical rules, a different script, or a variation in a dialect. Translating from English can be a painstaking process for anyone who is not adequately familiar with the target language.

Though they are harder to translate, they are definitely worth the effort if you want to expand your business globally.

Hungarian #

Photo by Dominika Gregušová

Spoken by roughly 13 million people in the world, this beautiful language is considered the toughest language to learn, and of course, to translate. Why?

  • It has 14 vowels – You know it’s not going to be easy when the vowels are nearly twice as many in English. The translation difficulty just got doubled!
  • Flexible word order – “I love your pants” can’t be translated into “your pants love me” now, can you? It would be so awkward.
  • Too many cases – Some say 17, some say 18, some even say 35. It all depends on how you define “cases”. Hmm, interesting.

Hindi #

Photo by Jeswin Thomas

This language is easily the top 5 most spoken languages in the world. Surprisingly (or not), it is also one of the hardest language to translate. You want to know why?

  • Unfamiliar sounds – Homographs and homophones can destroy your whole translation and transcription.
  • The Devanagari script (writing system) and diacritics – That little mark under the alphabet? Don’t miss it out.
  • Gender-specific conjugation and formality of tones – Different genders, different ranks? Different words.

Arabic #

Photo by Afif Ramdhasuma

With 25 countries claiming it as an official or co-official language, Arabic has always been seen as a fascinating language with rich history. Well, sometimes, it can be a little too fascinating.

  • No capital letters – Imagine when you need to emphasize something, how do you do that? (Just between you and me: Use quotation marks.)
  • It goes from right to left – Sometimes you are so used to writing left to right, when you translate, you forget. Then, you will end up writing gibberish that doesn’t make sense at all.
  • So many dialects – All languages have dialects, but not all languages have this many nationwide/regionwide dialects (Egyptian, Maghrebi, Gulf, Levantine, Sudanese and so on…).

Finnish #

Photo by Paul Theodor Oja

The Nordic language, famous for its compound words, has one of the world’s longest word, “entokonesuihkuturbiinimoottoriapumekaanikkoaliupseerioppilas”, which means “airplane jet turbine engine auxiliary mechanic non-commissioned officer student”.

  • It is an agglutinative language – It means it is highly synthetic and a word can be made by juxtaposing inflected verbs, nouns and adjectives, like what we saw above. Need I say more?
  • They actually love literal words – “Refrigerator” is an “ice cupboard (jääkaappi)” and an “auction” is a “shouting shop (huutokaupata)”. Imagine how many times a Finnish translator had to explain that the translation was not a literal/word-for-word one!

Chinese #

Photo by Lian Rodriguez

English is the world’s lingua franca, which means it is the most spoken language in the world. The second? Mandarin. Mandarin and Chinese are two different concepts, but let’s just leave this for next time.

  • No alphabets – Chinese is not a phonetic language. It has characters instead of alphabets. That means when you want to write a 300-word essay, you’ll need to memorize all 300 characters. You can’t spell those out.
  • It is a tonal language – It all comes down to the tones! The way you say a word can mean 4 different meanings.

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