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Most Difficult Languages to Translate: Top Ten

Most Difficult Languages to Translate: Top Ten

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Most Difficult Languages to Translate: Top Ten. Photo of a pair of round glasses over a book written in a foreign alphabet. Picture of Anne Nygård at Unsplash. Unsplash License. https://unsplash.com/es/fotos/h7-V2KkCECI

Language translation is an art and science, and this guide discusses the most difficult languages in the world to translate. 

While learning a new language can be fun, translating audiovisual content and product guides for corporates is a completely different ball game.

Audiovisual translation involves dealing with divergent writing systems and grammatical rules to suit the needs of the native language speaker. 

Subject matter expertise is another complex part of the puzzle. Certain languages are inherently difficult, making the project even more difficult.

Why are Some Languages More Difficult to Translate?

Some languages tend to be more challenging to translate into English than others. Let’s explore some reasons that make translating these languages painstaking and time-consuming.

Difficult Words

Due to cultural context, words in certain languages may be difficult to translate. In many languages, the word “you” is different in formal and informal situations. 

In English, the use of the word “you” is quite straightforward.

Language Structure

Some languages have complex structures, which makes translation difficult. 

When translating between languages that have completely different structures, the process can be exceptionally difficult.

Open and Closed Compound Words

When two words or more are combined to create a new word, it is called a compound word

Compound words can be closed or opened, depending on how the words are joined. This can add a layer of complexity to translation.    

No Equivalent Words

Some of the most difficult languages in the world have words or phrases for which no equivalent is present in English. 

Professional translators have to try to find a close equivalent to be able to explain the concept. This can impact the space and length of the finished translation.

Multiple Meanings

The same word often has different meanings in certain languages. For example, in French, “une feuille” can mean a sheet of paper and also a leaf.   

List of the Most Difficult Languages in the World

Languages like Korean, Japanese, and Arabic are the most challenging for native English speakers

According to Business Insider, it takes 1.69 years to achieve proficiency in these languages.

Let’s explore the top 10 most difficult languages for English speakers.

Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin is a tonal language and one that has many alternate dialects and variations that vary in pronunciation and grammar. 

What makes translation even more challenging is the fact that it utilizes three types of characters- simplified characters, traditional characters, and pictographs.

Mongolian

Mongolian is a unique language that is loosely a hybrid of Finnish, Russian, and Chinese. This language is particularly difficult for native English speakers. 

Mongolian utilizes the Cyrillic alphabet, but it has added characters that make translation particularly challenging.

Arabic

Arabic only has a present and past tense, which can make it incredibly difficult to translate it into English. The language also has the highest number of regional dialects

The vowels in Arabic are scripted in four ways, depending on their placement in the word. These are all the reasons that contribute to the difficulty of translating Arabic.

Korean

Korean is one of the most difficult languages in the world because it is a language isolate.

The Korean Language has more than a million words compared to 300,000 words in English. It also features unique sentence structures, grammar, and syntax.  

Thai

Thai is a tonal language where the same words can mean different things based on speaking tones. 

There are no capital letters in the language or spaces between the letters. The adjectives and adverbs are behind the words that they modify. 

Translating Thai requires a deep understanding of the language and the subject matter.  

Finnish

Finnish is a language in the Fino-Ugric family. This is one of the most difficult languages to translate because the language is spoken with colloquialisms, so the oral words can be different from the written word. 

The Finnish Language also has a very complex grammar pattern.

Hungarian

Hungarian has 35 different cases which makes it incredibly difficult to translate. 

What makes the language even more challenging to translate is that the language has unusual tense and possession rules that are dictated by suffixes and not word order.   

Russian

Russian uses the Slavic Cyrillic script with ten vowels and 21 consonants. Two letters in Russian don’t designate sounds at all. 

Russian is one of the most difficult languages for English speakers because it has many case endings that require mastery of the grammatical rules.  

Japanese

Japanese is one of the most difficult languages to translate because there are four alphabets or writing systems in Japanese– Kanjis, Romaji, Katana, and Hiragana. 

The sentence structure is also quite different between Japanese and English. Translators need to break each sentence apart and reorganize them for accurate translations and Japanese subtitling 

Polish

Polish is an Indo-European language, but it has many special characters when compared to English. In English, there are only two declensions, while there are 14 in Polish

The language also has a free word order, which means that the standard sentence structure with subject-verb-object does not apply to Polish.

Do you know that Polish is one of the most spoken languages in the UK?

Check out this blog post about Polish Dialects and Languages. Knowing them is crucial before starting an English to Polish Translation Project!

Audio and Video Translation to the Hardest Languages

Regardless of the difficulty, GoLocalise can handle all your audiovisual translation needs. 

With a talent pool of professional translators, GoLocalise can deliver translation services for over 300 languages, even for some of the most difficult languages in the world!

Check out our complete translation rates and subtitling rates guides.

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