The Toughest Documents to Translate

Ian Hawes

Ian Hawes

March 4th, 2020
Frustrated translator Frustrated translator

If you’re unfamiliar with a language, any document you’re trying to translate can take forever. However, some documents are simply tough as nails to get into another tongue! Here are some of the ones that present the most challenge.

Handwritten Documents

Ever see someone with a crazy signature? One that takes up half the page it’s on and looks like chicken scratch? We all see like that; when we do, we always know we’re in for a long day.

Deciphering someone’s handwriting can make the difference between accurate and inaccurate translation. What looks like an S could be a F or maybe an X. If the translator isn’t careful, any number of words could pop out from the page.

Of course, context is a big part of it. But then you have:

Documents With Too Much Slang

Knowing the language is one thing. You can memorize words all the live long day, and understand syntax and other rules. But when it comes to slang, it’s a constant uphill battle.

Why? Because it’s always changing. In the English language we have dozens of words just to describe how much we like something. “Cool,” for example, or “awesome,” or outdated terms like “boss” or “groovy.” If a translator isn’t familiar with new sayings, this slang can really throw a document off the rails.

This is precisely why there is so much official language on documents, especially anything that has to do with various laws. It means the documents will exist despite the ebb and flow of spoken language and won’t be filled with what seems like nonsense to future generations.

Words Like These…

Back in 2004, a survey of linguists around the world revealed some of the most untranslatable terms. These included Shlimazl, which is Yiddish and means a person who is chronically unlucky, and Tartle, which is a Scottish verb for the hesitation that occurs when you can’t remember someone’s name.

The winner was Ilunga, from the Tshiluba language spoken in the Congo. It references a person who is ready to forgive any abuse the first time it occurs, to tolerate it the second time, but to neither forgive or tolerate abuse the third time.

Occasionally we’ll get terms like these that just don’t have easy English translations. We have terms like these, too, that don’t translate so well into other languages. Like what exactly is “gobbledygook?” However, our experts know that there’s always a way to explain a term, even if it takes an entire paragraph to do so!

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