common translation challenges

5 Common Translation and Localization Challenges Businesses Face

By Juliana Pereira 

In today’s global marketplace, reaching across cultural boundaries and breaking down language barriers can be a significant challenge for businesses that want to communicate with their target market successfully. Language translation requires a high degree of linguistic knowledge, cultural familiarity, and accuracy. However, translation — the changing of words or text into another language — is often not enough; localization is the process of adapting your content to a local market so that it resonates more deeply with that audience.

In a sense, translation is one component of localization, but localization takes translation one step further by using the correct local currency, weights, measures, and time formats that audience is used to, or by adapting imagery and colors that resonate with that audience in a way that feels native to them.

It is essential to put the number of languages into perspective so that you can understand the challenges that exist in localization — even within the same country. Incredibly, there are over 7,000 known languages spoken throughout the world today. Papua New Guinea boasts over 800 languages. A higher ranking country like China, with nearly 1.2 billion native speakers — more than any other country in the world — has close to 200 dialects. However, 70 percent of China’s population speaks Mandarin.

No matter how many markets you plan to localize for or the number of languages you decide to translate your content into, there will always be a series of challenges and considerations that will come up in the localization process. Here are five of the most common translation challenges to be aware of as you get started.

1. Figure of Speech

As tempting as it may seem to use figure of speech to “punch up” the content you are having translated or perhaps to explain a concept more vividly, the usage itself can be problematic and possibly distort or detract from your messaging. When you break it down, figure of speech is a word or a phrase that has another meaning than the literal one. Therefore, it is important to remember that being creative and being accurate is not the same thing. The crux of the problem is that your target market may not comprehend what you are trying to convey.

If the translator uses similes, metaphors, personification, puns, sarcasm, hyperboles and other forms of figure of speech, yet does not have command of the native language or cultural norms, the messaging may miss the mark, or worse, be offensive. Using a metaphor like, “break a leg” might be insulting to your target audience in most languages. This is where the adage “lost in translation” could indeed be applied.

In addition to having a native speaker who understands with absolute precision how to efficiently translate figure of speech, it is imperative that your translator is incredibly familiar with the culture. After all, localization is vital in translation.

2. Sarcasm/Irony

The Greek word for sarcasm comes from a Greek verb, sarkazein, which translated means “to tear flesh like a dog.” This is a pretty harsh visual. Despite the early interpretation, sarcasm has become almost a social norm in American culture. You most likely experience sarcasm personally or through social media — or use it yourself. Of course, sarcasm can make for a memorable commercial advertisement or comedy routine; however, the challenge with using the sharp and biting style of sarcasm in translation is that the meaning can get lost when interpreted into another language.

If you think about the intent of sarcasm, which uses irony and other rhetorical devices to mock, you run the risk of possibly offending or confusing your target market. However, if it is deemed necessary to use this particular style because it is relevant to the content, then the translator should be made aware of the implied style ahead of time, which can help avoid literal misinterpretations. This will also enable the translator to be proactive in proposing a local phrase that may be a better fit for that specific target language.

3. Compound Verbs

Compound verbs are another example of how certain English nuances can cause confusion when translating into another language. In English 101, you learned that sometimes a verb and a preposition take on an entirely different meaning when used together. American English speakers casually use compound verbs such as “fill out,” “stand up,” “switch off,” “look up” and “bring up” in everyday conversations and written form.  These types of verbs can be difficult to translate because the meaning of these words may might not have an equivalent in languages other than English.

4. Multiple Meanings

Multiple meanings can be a source of bewilderment for much of the non-English speaking world. Even native English-speaking children are perplexed at first when it comes to reading a word that may be spelled and sound the same but have multiple meanings, depending upon how it is used in a sentence. The usage of homonyms — words that are said and spelled the same but have different purposes — can mislead the translator. Some examples of homonyms include words that can serve both as a noun and a verb, such as “loan,” “suit,” “book,” and “trip.”

Heteronyms, which are words that have identical spelling but have different meanings and pronunciation, can prove to be a bit daunting during translation as well. Words like “lead,” “minute,” and “converse,” are just a sampling of the many heteronyms that exist.

5. Words without Equivalents

It is no surprise that due to the complexity and diversity of language and the cultural influences that are involved, not every word has a precise match. These untranslatable words extend to objects and even particular actions or feelings. Often these words have complex meanings that simply cannot be applied in translation. For example, in Japanese, the word “boketto” is the act of gazing vacantly into the distance without a thought. However, there is no English equivalent to translate this into one word.  

It’s important for your business to embrace these nuances of language so that you are aware of how your brand will be seen and understood by audiences in other markets.  If your brand has a particular voice and tone that you would like to preserve in your other markets, make sure to work with translators who can understand how to localize the subtleties of your brand. You can help your linguists by providing them with style guides and glossaries of your brand content so that they can translate the most appropriate voice for your target markets while still being true to your brand.

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Juliana Pereira
Juliana Pereira is Vice President of Marketing at Smartling, a translation software and service innovator based in New York City. Throughout her 15 years working in marketing and ecommerce, Juliana has held several key roles for well-known companies such as Ziff Davis and Ralph Lauren. Juliana holds a B.A. from Brown University and an M.A. from the New School.

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