in All Things Localization

Translators are charged with the difficult task of helping others make sense of foreign worlds through the conversion of one language to another, and none know how much work this can be than those who tackle what are considered the hardest languages to translate. This process can’t be done with the flip of a switch. A language contains many facets – syntax, grammar, and vocabulary, not to mention a whole culture that influences the way people communicate. Translation is not just stringing words together; rather it is taking an idea from one culture and recreating it in a way that communicates the same idea in another culture. Differences between languages can teach us about other cultures, but it doesn’t make it any easier for a translator to do their job.

Hardest Languages to Translate

What are the hardest languages to translate? It is an easier task to translate those languages that are culturally and linguistically similar to each other, like Spanish or French.  Languages that are completely opposite from each other in terms of their linguistics are naturally much harder to translate. Culture plays a huge role in these differences.  Languages that contain many idioms and sayings with deep cultural roots will make absolutely no sense to a person without any understanding of the culture.

Hindi is one such language full of idioms that are difficult to translate. All of its rich cultural elements manifest themselves in colloquialisms and phrases that are indecipherable to a translator without a keen cultural sense. These phrases will be complete gibberish if converted literally into another language. Often, translators will have to identify an equivalent idiom in the target language to accurately convey the meaning of the phrase, or sum the idea up with a few words.

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Take the Hindi phrase that says, “Drumbeats from afar sound pleasant.” The equivalent in English might be something like “The grass is always greener on the other side.” With a little thought, it is not too hard to figure out the meaning of the expression and assign an appropriate colloquialism to the English translation. However the task is not always so simple.

“A washer man’s dog belongs neither to his home nor to the riverside.” A phrase like this is not quite as decipherable and may need some cultural context. In this case, the idiom refers to a village washer man who goes door-to-door, collecting dirty clothes, taking them to the river to wash, and then returning them. His dog, which follows him to each place has no chance to establish a territory and thus has no home. With the appropriate cultural knowledge, a translator will be able to think critically about the saying and translate the phrase as “A rolling stone gathers no moss.”

Cultural idioms like these are the colors that create a vibrant picture of culture through language. It takes expert cultural knowledge to recreate the same meaning in another language that packs just as much power as it did in the original language. Languages with many idioms may be difficult to translate, but the value of spreading ideas to different people is priceless for it can bring the world together.

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