Why Translation Can be Difficult

By: John Xavier

Do you sometimes wonder why certain materials are badly translated? One of these reasons why translation is difficult is a phenomenon known as polysemy: the many meanings that a single word can take.

For example, In English, the word plain can take on the following meanings:

ordinary / undecorated: a plain white shirt
easy / simple to understand: plain English
a level area of land: great plains

Due to polysemy, translating English into other languages is more complex than it seems. One will have to know which sense of the word is truly needed.

For example, there are over 20 ways to saying "to get" in French. This is because there are multiple meanings of "get" that are used in English, but the French must use a different word for each of those meanings. This concept isn't that obvious, but this can give translators some trouble.

At basic levels of French, most are taught the verb obtenir ("to get"). But which sense of the word "get" is really used here? Obtenir is used when something is acquired (it looks like the English word obtain). A different word must be used if you want "get" to take on a different meaning.

In each of the following sentences "get" takes a different meaning:

I need to get some bread. (buy)
I get the idea. (understand)
We need to get home. (arrive)

This is just one word out of many which can cause translation difficulty. One must study the context carefully and do not try to translate word for word, or even worse, rely on an automated translator. Translation done by a machine can produce very awkward and often hilarious results which make no sense at all. Automatic translators are only useful for giving a brief overview (the gist of what is being said) of the main ideas being discussed. How will a machine translator know which sense of a word is being used, especially if that word has many homonyms? Looking at the context (or surrounding words) is somewhat useful, but it is not always fool-proof. Only a human being can determine what the best translation is.

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