Challenges in Translation (and how to overcome them)

Ask any non-translator out there whether translating is easy, and you will most likely get a resounding ‘Yes’. To most common people who possess knowledge of another language apart from their native one, they will simply regard translating as something to be done literally or word-for-word;an act that does not require much thought.

However, if you are a professional translator or part of an organization that offers certified translation services from Singapore or any part of the world, you must have surely come across a myriad of problems during the translation process that would have similarly stumped even the most experienced of translators at times.Here we will be listing some of them out and categorizing them into ‘Internal’ and ‘External’ difficulties for simplicity’s sake.


1) Lack of Background Knowledge

As mentioned in previous articles, knowing the cultural context of the source is essential to the translation process. Similarly, translation companies or professional translators alike should focus on translating with the target audience in mind to achieve quality translations that can be easily understood when read.

For instance, it would be daunting for a translation company in Singapore to translate an informal document that contains ‘Singlish’ (Singapore English) in it as the source, without first understanding that Singlish borrows words from the various local Chinese dialect groups and the different ethnic groups present here.

2) Insufficient Grammatical Knowledge

Any professional translator might have found some sentences difficult to translate every now and then due to the diversity of sentence structures that varies from language to language. This is especially so for those dealing with legal or notarized translation, where the phrasing of words and jargons do not reflect how we would usually use them in everyday life. How a translator breaks down a sentence from the source and arranges the words back together while retaining its original meaning is reflective of his skills in the field. Thus, for those looking to dabble in translating or work in translation companies, grammatical knowledge is all the more important to have as you could say that this is one of the benchmarks that differentiates a good translator from a bad one.

Be that as it may, this is one of the basic hurdles that all novice translators would have to undergo at the beginning of their translation careers, and the key to getting through it is practice, practice and more practice. It is important to note, though, that the translators themselves must have the motivation to improve when honing their craft as well, for their practices to reap results.


1) Language Structure

This would be referring to grammatical rules, syntax formation and basically how words are formed and arranged in the source language. For instance, a typical English sentence would follow the [Subject] – [Verb] – [Object] word order, yet in Hindi and Japanese, it becomes [Subject] – [Object] – [Verb] instead.Why this is tricky for some translators is because several steps are needed in the translation process when dealing with such structures. For example,some sentences might contain complex languages such as Singlish that has a unique structure of its own. In this case, a translator in Singapore would be required to first understand the different components of the sentence and the intricacies of the words used before he can translate them into the target language.

While translators cannot control the kind of documents they are assigned to work on, it is imperative that they pay close attention to the structure of the source language they are working on and ensure that their translations sound logical and appealing to the reader, all without compromising on the meaning of the original.

2) Idioms and Phrasal Expressions

How would you translate the English expression “a piece of cake” into another language? It wouldn’t be over the top to state that idiomatic expressions are one of the most difficult items to translate for any translation company out there, simply because the meanings of these expressions do not often reflect their literal translations. Furthermore, this is an area in which machine translation engines fails to deliver competently as well.

This is why for those offering translation services and more so for the certified translation companies, in-depth knowledge of the target language’s culture and specialized terminology are crucial in ensuring that translators can provide the best possible translation service for clients.

3) Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal Verbs are usually made up of a verb and a preposition which take on a context-specific meaning, usually used in informal speech or writing. However, it would be impossible to understand what the words mean individually when translated by themselves, especially for prepositions. An apt example would be that of “look up”; it can either mean to literally ‘look upwards’ or ‘to search for and visit someone’. Once again, context is vital here and it would do a certified translation company good to have an array of translators who are well-versed in the intricacies and complexities of the source and target language when working on projects.

To conclude: Language is alive; it is ever-changing and adapting to the needs/requirements of its users. What is important is that professional translators and translation companies not only in Singapore, but around the world ensure they keep abreast with the latest information in their field of specialization and remain open-minded to expanding their vocabulary and terminology knowledge.Such adaptability and sensitivity to words in the modern world is the ticket to guaranteeing that those offering translation services remain as the cream of the crop in such a highly competitive industry.

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