Translating Onomatopoeia

Translating Onomatopoeia

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Picture illustrating 'Blahblahblah' onomatopoeia on a Neon light (black and white). For the blog Translating Onomatopoeia. Retrieved from Unsplash.

Are onomatopoeias the same in all languages?

The word Onomatopoeia is used to describe the process of developing a word that phonetically mimics, resembles, or suggests the sound. Oxford online dictionary defines onomatopoeia as the “formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named”. Across different languages, sounds and noises can be very different, such as animal sounds or sounds made when consuming food or drinks, coughing, snoring and yawning.

Translators are inevitably facing issues with onomatopoeia when creating target texts. Compared to normal words, onomatopoeia seems to be more unique as their forms are closely linked with the meanings. It is clear that ordinary words cannot express the inventive, lively, and picturesque meanings the same way as onomatopoeic words may.

Here are some examples to get us started:

Onomatopoeias translated from languages around the world

Snoring and Yawning Onomatopoeia in Translation

Chinese/Cantonesegot syu, got got seng/
Chinese/Mandarin呼噜 (hū lu)/
Englishzzzyawn, ho-hum
Frenchron pchi, (rrr) zzzouaaah
Korean드르렁 (deureureong)하암 (haam)
Persian / Farsixor-o-pof, xor-nāse/

Baby crying and Screaming Onomatopoeia in Translation

LanguageBaby cryingScreaming
Chinese/ Cantonese哇哇 (waa waa)哎呀 (aai jaa)
Chinese/ Mandarin哇哇 (wā wā)啊 (ā), 噢 (ō), 哎呀 (āiyā),
哎哟 (āiyō)
Englishwah-wahah, arghh ow, ouch, yeow, 
yow, agh, eek, yikes, oof
Frenchouin ouinaïe, ouille, ayoye
Germanwäh-wähau, aua, ah, autsch
Korean응애-응애 (eung’ae-eung’ae)아 (a), 아야 (aya), 꺄 (kkya)
Russianуа-уа (ua-ua)ой (oj), ай (aj), ох (okh)

Cats and Dogs Onomatopoeia in Translation

LanguageCat MeowingDog Barking
Chinese/ Cantonese喵喵 (mēu-mēu)㕵㕵 (wōu-wōu)
Chinese/ Mandarin喵 (miāo)汪汪 (wāng wāng)
Czechmňau [mɲau]haf haf
Frenchmiaououah ouah, ouaf ouaf, 
wouf wouf
Englishmiaow (UK), meow (US)woof, arf, bow wow, 
ruff, bark, 
yap yap, yip yip 
(small dog)
Korean야옹 (yaong)멍멍 (meong meong)
Japaneseニャー (nyā)ワンワン (wan wan)

Birds Onomatopoeia in Translation

LanguageChicken CluckingRooster crowing
Chinese/ Cantonese咯咯 (gok4 gok1)咯咯咯咯 (gok4 gok1 gok3 gok6)
Chinese/ Mandarin咯咯 (gē gē)咕咕咕 (gū gū gū)
Englishcluck cluck, bawk bawk, 
bok bok bok, bok bok b’gawk, 
buk erk
cock a doodle doo
Frenchcot cot cot, cot cot codetcocorico
Germangack gack gack, guaguaguakikeriki
Korean꼬꼬댁 (kko kko daek)꼬꼬댁 꼬꼬 (kkokkodaek kko),
꼬끼오 (kko-kki-o)
Thaiกุ๊ก ๆ (kuk kuk)เอ้กอี๊เอ้กเอ้ก (ek-i-ek-ek)

Check out the video below to hear some fun onomatopeia in different languages:

Onomatopoeia in translation at GoLocalise

As a dedicated audiovisual translation company based in London, GoLocalise aims to deliver high quality translations powered by many translation technologies.  We surely pay attention to details like for instance, the translations of onomatopoeia so that the target reader does not get confused.

In one of the translation projects on a film trailer we have done, we came accross the word “BOKAAAM!”. After checking in with the client regarding that, it is confirmed that the word is a graphic that refers to an explosion sound effect. We then requested our experienced linguists to find the most suitable expressions in their native languages. As expected, the translation results varied, for example, “BOKAAAM!” becomes “轰隆 (Hong Long)” in Chinese, “PANG!” in Swedish, “БУМ!” in Russian, and “קאבום!” in Hebrew.

You can see how different translations from one language to another can be! This can suggest that translation is always subject to context, and onomatopoeia in translation is no exception. Finding a competent translation service provider that delivers high quality content can be tricky. At GoLocalise, we carefully study the materials we receive, and work with the client to figure out what they want as final products. We do not only work fast to meet the deadline, but also keep our clients updated throughout the project. Our linguists are all professional in their domains, they have the experience and expertise to carry out a wide range of complex translation tasks for you. We always work responsibly, carefully and diligently, protecting your confidentiality at all times.

Onomatopoeia Fun Fact:

Did you know that in almost every languages, the sound a cow makes starts with “m” except in Urdu (speakers of this language hear “beah”)?

Enjoyed this blog? Check out a similar blog on Translation of language quirks and idiosyncrasies. Or check out our previous blog on English Subtitles and Differences In Spoken and Written Language.

Remember, if you’d like to discuss your next project, then give us call on +44 (0) 207 095 5730 or email [email protected] for a quote.

As well as providing translation services for several decades now, we also provide voice over and subtitling services. Whether you need voice overs or subtitles, we’d love to hear from you!

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