07 Jul 2014

The Difficulties of English Translations

It is often said that English is a difficult language to learn.

Even native speakers of languages such as Mandarin or Russian – often thought by English speakers as difficult languages to master – have been known to throw their hands up in exasperation and pine for the relative simplicity of their mother tongues.

You can’t rely on phonetics

One of the problems with English is that it has a number of influences. Latin, German, French and even Celtic all combine to confound learners; throwing curve balls at any rules they may have learned that aid pronunciation.

You only have to consider the differing sounds of words such as ‘though, ‘trough’ and ‘through’ to have some idea of the minefield that awaits eager students.

Some of the blame can be laid at the feet of etymology. With all the influences of the various invaders who have embarked on British shores throughout the centuries, English speaking can be as much a lesson it history as it is in language.

But before you get too down on the language, it’s important to remember that flexibility is also its strength. It is precisely this flexibility that has allowed English to function among so many dialects and in different countries across the globe.

Homonyms, homophones & homographs

Nothing flummoxes learners of English like the homonym, homophone and homograph.

For the uninitiated:

Homonym – a word that is spelled and pronounced like another word but is different in meaning.

Homophone – a word that is pronounced like another word but is different in meaning, origin, or spelling

Homograph – a word that is spelled like another word but is different in origin, meaning, or pronunciation.

These tricksters can have even the most diligent student sobbing into their café au lait. The resulting ambiguities thrown up by words that sound the same, or are spelt the same, but that have different meanings require that readers or speakers must first have a good grasp of the context in which the words are spoken or written before correct meaning can be deduced.

When taking homonyms into consideration, a simple sentence like “I went to the bank” could either mean:

“I visited the establishment where money is deposited”


“I walked to the sloping bit of land by the river”

Here are some more examples of these tricky lexical brain teasers:

  • The bandage was wound around the wound
  • We must polish the Polish furniture
  • When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes
  • The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert

And if you still have any doubts about the difficulties connected to these types of words, take a look this poem from the British Council.

Eye Halve a Spelling Chequer

Eye halve a spelling chequer
It came with my pea sea
It plainly marques four my revue
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.

Eye strike a quay and type a word
And weight four it two say
Weather eye am wrong oar write
It shows me strait a weigh.

As soon as a mist ache is maid
It nose bee fore two long
And eye can put the error rite
Its really ever wrong.

Eye have run this poem threw it
I am shore your pleased two no
Its letter perfect in it’s weigh
My chequer tolled me sew.

Translation difficulties

The complex nature of the English language is not simple a problem for language students. Businesses also face the unenviable task of getting their meaning across without falling foul of the many grammar gremlins that lay in their path.

Any one of the previously mentioned hurdles could result in at best, a failure in communication, or at worst the levelling of an unintended slight or insult.

This threat is exacerbated by the use of translation technology, which has only minimal provision for placing translatable material into context.

The only real way to guarantee the best results when translating material from English is to use native speakers. Only English speakers will carry with them the internal knowledge needed to easily ascertain which of the multiple word meanings found in the English language is appropriate.

But the difficulties encountered by brave linguists attempting to wrestle with English sadly do not stop there.

Irregular verbs

Rules are the mainstay of foreign language learning. It is these rules that form the bedrock from which students can go on to understand the intricacies and complexities of the chosen language of study. But when these rules arbitrarily change, then problems will inevitably arise.

Such is the case with irregular verbs. For many English verbs, the past tense is quite easy to predict.

Pick becomes picked

Accept becomes accepted

Add becomes added

In these cases learners can simply add –ed after the words to discover their past tense.

But what about hear, buy, and know? Frustratingly, these become heard, bought and knew. Only the murky waters of etymology can shed light on to why it is the case for these and so many other English verbs.

Who and whom

Even when there are hard and fast rules, problems still arise. The who v whom debate catches out native English speakers and non English alike.

Popular usage has made this a perennial problem. Though considered archaic by some, the proper use of whom can still convey an understanding of English that won’t go unnoticed by the eagle-eyed and can lend a note of authority to any translation.

The rule goes that if the answer a question uses the subject (she), then the subject interrogative pronoun (who) must be used in the question. If the answer to the question involves the object (her), then the object interrogative pronoun (whom) must be used.

So in the example:

  • Who/Whom did you see?
  • Who/Whom saw you?

The correct use is:

  • Whom did you see? I saw her. (object)
  • Who saw you? She saw me. (subject)

What is the point?

Getting to grips with these grammar traps doesn’t just ward off the pedants out there, it can have a very real effect on how you come across. For a business, this could mean the difference between winning a contract worth thousands of pounds, or receiving a polite ‘thanks, but no thanks’. When a company’s reputation is at stake, using the right English translators for the job can be crucial to how you are perceived in the marketplace.


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