Common Challenges of Translation

The purpose of language is communication. If that fails, language is useless. A good translator should be familiar with the culture, history and beliefs of the people who speak both languages. If the translator is not fluent in both languages, his/her success is threatened.

Some common challenges of translation are:

Language Structure

Every language has a unique structure. The structure of language is directly related to the level of accuracy and simplicity of the translation. The simpler the language is, the easier it is to translate that language to another one.

A simple sentence in English has a subject, verb and object in that order, as in “They eat meat.” But in other languages, such as Persian, the order is different. In Farsi, a simple sentence is composed of a subject, then an object, and finally, the verb: “Anha goosht mikhorand.” In some languages like Arabic, the subject pronoun (they) is part of the verb: “Yaikoloon allahom.” There is no independent word “they” in that sentence; the “-oon” at the end of Yaikloon makes it the third person plural masculine pronoun.

Idioms and expressions

Idiomatic expressions that explain something by using examples or figures of speech. They are something that Google Translate will never be able to cope with; they still belong exclusively to human communication. In my opinion, idioms are the most difficult thing to translate. Some idioms are misleading, as they may seem transparent because they offer a reasonable literal interpretation and their idiomatic meanings are not necessarily signalled in the surrounding text, e.g., “to take someone for a ride.”  Familiarity with the culture is very helpful for translating idioms.

Compound Words

Compound words are made of two or more words, but the overall meaning of the compound word may not reflect the meaning of any of those words. I generally think of compound words as being divided into three groups:

The first group of compound words mean exactly what they say: “afternoon,” “anytime,” “seashore,” “underground” and so on.

The second group of compound words mean half of what they say, at least in a literal sense: “bellboy” involves a boy but not a bell – though perhaps the boy used to materialize when someone rang a bell? Likewise, a “bookworm” is not a worm but a human who likes to read (or burrow into) books.

The third group of compound words have meanings that have nothing to do with the meanings of the individual words involved. For instance, the English “deadline” refers to the final acceptable time to receive or deliver something. It has nothing to do with death or a line. And a “butterfly” is neither a fly nor butter.

Missing Names

A language may not have a word for a certain action or object that exists in another language. In America, some houses have a “guest room,” which is a room where hosts allow guests to sleep. It is a common room in a house, but Americans don’t have a single word for it, so we use its description, “guest room.” Other languages have a very specific name for that room, e.g. ksnona (Greek), while some languages may require three words to describe it: camera per gliospiti (Italian).

Two-Word Verbs

It refers to a verb and a preposition that have a specific meaning when used together. Two-word verbs are common in informal English: “look up,” “close up,” “fill out,” “shut up,” “bring up,” “break down” and “break in” are some examples. In many cases, it is not appropriate or necessary to translate the preposition separately.

Multiple Meanings

Sometimes words have several meanings depending upon how they are used in a sentence. I think of words with multiple meanings in two ways:

1. Words that sound alike (also known as homographic homophones or homonyms), e.g., “scale” in the following sentence: “Scale the fish completely before weighing it on the scale.”

2. Words that sound different (also known as homographic heterophones or heteronyms), e.g., “windy” in the following sentence: “I drove down the windy road on a windy day.”


Sarcasm is a sharp, bitter or cutting way of uttering an expression or remark that usually means the opposite of what people say. Sarcasm frequently loses its meaning when translated word-for-word into another language; a literal translation would express the opposite of what the speaker actually intended to say.

My native language, Farsi (Persian), can be quite complicated to translate, as it has two faces: formal and informal. I recently got a translation job that involved translating an app for the World Cup from English to Farsi. This job was challenging because it featured lot of idioms, slang and sarcasm that would not make any sense in Farsi.  My solution was to translate the idioms and slang into equivalent Persian slang expressions to make the app as effective as possible.

About Niloofar Kalantar

I am a civil engineer living in Melbourne, Australia. I'm also specialized in translating Persian, my mother tongue, into English and vice versa. My interests revolve around greener, ethical, and sustainable initiatives for a brighter future for us and future generations.