When it comes to translating and interpreting across various languages, one of the biggest issues that professional human translators face relates to changing words or phrases that do not have a direct translation. Within this general category of lexical differences, there are certain specific kinds of language items that don’t ‘match’ from one language to another.
Non-Matching Words and Structural Language Differences
Many words that seem to have no accurate translation involve fundamental differences between how certain language items are approached in different languages. For example, one type of difference would be the ways that languages construct their verbs. Here’s one instance of this phenomenon involving different sets of ‘Western’ languages that, while sharing many characteristics, do still have their differences. In Spanish, French, and many other related European tongues, there is a direct verb for the idea that something has a comparative worth (ex: Span: “merecer”) In English, however, a different kind of phrase is substituted, where English speakers will simply pronounce that something “is worth” something, or ask “is it worth…(x)?” This key linguistic difference has spurred many errors, for example, in European speakers asking Americans “does (something) worth (something)” Here, the speakers could perhaps be forgiven for carrying over their own verb into a translation attempt that is, in the end, not accurate.
Non-Matching Words and Idiomatic Differences
Another category of words with no accurate translation involves the actual labels or names given to objects, places and people in a given language. This set of non-matching words expands as more and more slang and dialect are included. For example, if a person from one language culture uses a local food, let’s say tofu, in a phrase like “tofu-eater,” a person from another language community must respond by figuring out whether that phrase has any inherent meaning in their own language. If not, the listener must ask the speaker more about what the particular label means and how it is used in context, in order to create a new phrase in their own language that parallels the meaning.
Handling Words With No Translation
Essentially, professional human translators work around this issue, in many cases, by creating new words and phrases that mirror the significance of non-translatable words. These substitutions can be elaborate descriptions, or simple single words that may roughly correspond to how a unique word is used in its original tongue. In other words, there’s a lot of fact-finding that goes into high-level translation, and research supporting the carrying of one linguistically labeled concept from one language to another.