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Top 4 Hardest Languages to Translate Between Any Pair

Top 4 Hardest Languages to Translate Between Any Pair

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Are you at the tender stage of translating your content and expanding your global reach, but struggle to find quality translators for certain languages?

That’s not surprising, given that not all languages are created equal in terms of their translation difficulty – few of them are more challenging to translate than others, thus demanding a greater level of skill and expertise on the part of the translator. Therefore, depending on the languages you opt for, it’s important to consider whether they require more of your dedicated attention.

In this article, we’ve compiled a list of the hardest languages to translate, noting some of the different factors that add to the translation difficulty. You might want to keep these in mind before you go out of your way to hire the perfect translator for the job.

1. Chinese

Chinese is spoken by over 1.1 billion native speakers worldwide, making it not just the most challenging language to translate into, but the most widely natively spoken language in the world too.

Why is Chinese so difficult to translate?

There are many challenging aspects of translating Chinese, including its writing systems, characters, and grammar system.

The two Chinese writing systems. Chinese has two primary writing systems, namely Traditional and Simplified Chinese. A translator needs to possess specialized understanding of the specific writing system to be in a position to produce accurate translations for each.

The many characters of Chinese. On top of that, Chinese is made up of a huge number of characters where each character is used to represent a thought, rather than an individual word. Those can have multiple meanings depending on the context, which translators need to take into account. That’s also one of the reasons why native speaker translators are a better fit for translating into Chinese – they are context experts.

The unique Chinese grammar system. There are various Chinese grammar rules that, upon close inspection, make little sense to speakers of other languages. For example, tense isn’t reflected on the verb the same way as with other languages and figuring out which tense to use is, yet again, extremely context-dependent.

2. Arabic

Arabic is one of the major languages of the Semitic language family, a group of closely related languages spoken in North and East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. There are over 274 million Modern Standard Arabic (MSA; the standardized variety of Arabic) speakers in the world today, without taking Arabic’s many dialects into account.

Why is Arabic so difficult to translate?

Arabic translation poses many challenges for translators due to the language’s highly complex nature, both in terms of how it’s spoken as well as written. These challenges boil down to Arabic’s enormous unique words list and the myriad of ways the same idea can be expressed.
Arabic has millions of unique words. Different languages have different numbers of unique words, but Arabic easily tops the list – the total number of unique Arabic words exceeds 12 million! Meanwhile, the number of unique words found in other languages pales in comparison. For instance, English and French are made up of 600,000 and 150,000 unique words respectively. Incredible familiarity is required on the translator’s part for the correct translation of those terms.
Most Arabic words have many meanings. The challenges of having million words to translate don’t end there. To make matters worse, some them lack a direct translation equivalent in many languages. But even more interestingly, the wild majority of Arabic words denote a bunch of different meanings. For example, expert Arabic translators know there can be up to three or more different translations for the same source text. That can create confusion for non-native Arabic speakers and bring up issues during the translation process.

3. Korean

There are over 80 million Korean native speakers worldwide. A fascinating fact about Korean is that its origins are shrouded in mystery. Although the Korean language has been linked to Japanese, Chinese and Tibetan, most linguists classify it as an independent language that lacks linguistic ancestry.

Why is Korean so difficult to translate?

Translating Korean is tough exactly because of its uniqueness as an independent language. Its biggest challenges are related to the use of Korean vocabulary and verbs as well as sentence structure.
Korean has compact vocabulary. Korean has a large number of untranslatable words, so there tends to be an absence of direct translated equivalents. For this reason, sometimes, a single Korean word can only be translated into an entire sentence in the other language. For example, the Korean noun ‘chwijig’ (취직) describes the entire job searching process with all of its related activities, such as CV-building.
The Korean ‘verb merging’ phenomenon. Translators need to be exceptionally familiar with Korean vocabulary also when it comes to verb usage. A phenomenon observed in the Korean language is that certain verbs are created via the merging of two or more verbs together. A translator needs to have the capacity to pull the units apart to derive the original meaning, and that’s extremely challenging for the untrained eye.
Korean’s unique sentence structure. The sentence structure of Korean is astonishingly different when compared to other languages and that can present challenges during translation. Translating word for word is absolutely never a possibility here, and verbs aren’t changed to reflect the subject’s gender or number (e.g., I play, he plays) as is commonly observed.

4. Thai

Thai, alternatively referred to as Siamese, is spoken by over 60 million people in the world today. Thai is a tonal language, just like Chinese, Laotian and Vietnamese, and has five different tones in total (low, mid, high, rising, and falling). For this reason, it’s a particularly colorful language and you can hear a different pitch when each individual sound is uttered.

Why is Thai so difficult to translate?

It’s Thai’s unique writing system and complex grammar that make Thai translation a complicated endeavor.
The distinct Thai writing system. The Thai script is, by contrast, quite dissimilar compared to other languages and highly complicated for non-native translators to fully grasp. It’s made up of 44 consonants and 32 vowel symbols that function more like consonants themselves and together combine into a variety of different vowel forms which modify the consonants. Additionally, many types of diacritical vowel-like marks are used above or below and before or after consonants to indicate tone. These are all complicated Thai translation issues that professional native translators can navigate with greater ease.
The complex Thai grammar. The Thai grammar system is intricate for multiple reasons. For example, Thai has no articles like “the” or “a”, and there aren’t plural noun forms so the translator has to rely on context to figure out number. What’s more, verb conjugation is subject-dependent, and there are various tenses for a translator to keep in mind. Thus, even structuring basic Thai sentences can many times be difficult.

Native translators at your fingertips

Translation is never simple, but the languages discussed above, Chinese, Arabic, Korean and Thai, pose significantly more challenges for translators to face than other languages do. Nevertheless, with a little help from professional and native translators you can release your translated content into the world without concerns with regards to the translation’s consistency and accuracy.
Pangea Global’s taskforce of over 900 translators speak your language, the languages above and 60+ more! We only work with native speakers with specific industry expertise to suit our clients’ needs. So whatever translation needs you might have, we’ve got the power to meet them.
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