;   Medical Translation Insight: 10 reasons why English is so difficult to translate - ForeignExchange Translations

English 101Is English a difficult language? As we know, English seems easy but is notoriously tricky.

Yesterday, we offered-up Shufra's Simplified Technical English training sessions as one solution for authors and writers who write not just in English but with an eye towards translation. But the realization that a good source text is key for a good translation isn't a new insight.

Several years ago, Curtis Brautigam explained that there are certain peculiar characteristics of the English language which cause problems for translators and non-native English speakers. Let's see if the same list still applies today:

  1. The verb-adverb combination is peculiar to English, as illustrated by constructions such as "turn on," "turn off," "mark up," or "mark down". In other languages, single specific verbs are used in place of the English verb-adverb combinations. A construction such as "turn off" is highly problematic because in English, it has numerous meanings. You can turn off a light, or you can use the word "turn off" in the sense of something being repulsive. For example, if you want to translate "turn off" in the sense of turning off a light in other languages, in French, it would be "eteindre"; in Spanish, it would be "apagar"; in Russian, it would be "vyklyuchit'"; in Hebrew, it would be "le-kabot." You would use a different verb in the sense of turning off a computer. This is one peculiar aspect of the English language that non-native speakers have a hard time grasping.
  2. Split infinitives seem to have become accepted English usage. In other languages, the verb infinitive has a specific form that identifies it as such. The adverb would be used after the infinitive.
  3. English syntax is very inflexible compared to other languages. English goes by a very strict subject-verb-object structure. Other languages are much more flexible. For instance, in Hebrew or Russian, the object can precede the verb for the purpose of emphasis (in Russian, the object is identified as such by means of the cases indicating direct or indirect object). Also, pronouns must be used with the verbs; this is not the case in other languages. For instance, in Spanish, Italian, or even Polish, you do not need to use the pronouns with the verb because the verb endings indicate the person. Then, of course, the syntax of German and Dutch is in a category of its own, with verbs coming at the end of sentences under certain circumstances.
  4. Many languages do not use articles. Virtually all Western European languages use articles. The Slavic languages (with the exception of Macedonian and Bulgarian) do not use articles - this causes difficulties for people with Slavic mother tongues learning English. Hebrew and Arabic have definite articles, but not indefinite articles. Some languages do not use the present tense of the verb "to be", such as Hebrew and Russian.
  5. Another difficulty for non-native English speakers is the fact that English is not a phonetic language. It is probably one of the most unphonetic languages in the world (French probably comes close to English in its lack of phoneticity).
  6. Some English vocabulary is peculiar. Most European languages have two verbs with the sense of "to know," one meaning to know a person in the sense of friendship or acquaintance (French, connaitre; German, kennen; Spanish, conocer, Russian, poznakomit'), and other meaning to know facts (French, savoir; German, wissen; Spanish, saber; Russian, znat'). There are two words for "law" in most European languages, one in the sense of a piece of legislation (French, loi; German, Gesetz; Spanish, ley; Italian: legge; Russian, zakon) and the other in the sense of the discipline of law (French, droit; German, Recht; Spanish, derecho; Italian, diritto; Russian, pravo). These two distinctions are even found in Hebrew, a non-Indo-European language.
  7. While English does not have as many grammatical inflections as other languages (thus simplifying the grammar enormously), English verbs can pose problems. The problematic areas are the enormous use of auxiliary verbs to convey modes (subjunctive and conditional) that are indicated in other languages by simple verb endings, and the large number of irregular verbs in English. It seems that English has more irregular verbs than other languages with which I am familiar.
  8. American English especially has a tendency to convert nouns to verbs. This is problematic for speakers of other languages who cannot as easily convert nouns to verbs. Noun combinations such as "light emitter diode", as well as compound nouns, also pose problems for speakers of other languages.
  9. Another peculiarity of English is the verb "to do." In many languages, the verb "to do" and "to make" have the same meaning (French, faire; Spanish, hacer; Russian, delat'; Hebrew, la-asot). In English, they are separate. In addition, the use of the verb "to do" in such constructions as "Do you speak English?" causes problems for non-native English speakers. This even causes difficulties for speakers of Germanic languages such as German or Dutch, which have separate verbs for "to do" (German, tun; Dutch, doen) and "to make" (German, machen; Dutch, maken), but do not use the verb "to do" in this manner. Instead of the verb "to do," all of these languages simply use the appropriate form of the verb.
  10. Much humor has been made of Japanese renderings of the English language. Even though I profess ignorance about Asian languages, it must be stated that the grammatical rules of Asian languages are very different from those of English. The more distinct the grammar is from English, the more difficulty non-native English speakers will have in producing materials in good English. In one job interview, one of my exercises was to render a paragraph that was written in "Japanese English" into proper English - it wasn't easy. I am sure that native speakers of Chinese or Korean also have a problem with English.
Yep, it seem like all of them still apply. And all of these peculiarities of English grammar do make it difficult for non-native English speakers to get a full command of the language - and for translating English materials into other languages.

Take a look at some of our other articles about the use of, challenges with, and fun aspects of English:
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  1. elizabeth said...
    Thanks for this insightful article. In addition to these difficulties are the multitudinous synonyms in english that allow us many shades of meaning, whereas there may be but one word for a concept in another language. I dont know another language well enough to prove it, but i suspect that taking a word from a Roget's thesaurus, such as happy, stupid, good, etc. will have a much shorter, and inadequate list of matching words in a Spanish, French, Japanese, etc. thesaurus, and going in the reverse direction, i'm sure we don't have English words that match such concepts as the Spanish Estrenar, or the Japanese wa. When English speakers can so often misunderstand each other, and need body language, and facial expression to convey nuances, how fraught with error are our written translated messages. Elizabeth
    Anonymous said...
    Re: number 5, you mean written English, or the orthography of English, rather than English itself. I know you would know this and I know I'm being picky, but it's really annoying me. Now that I've got that off my chest, I'm over it.

    Johannes from New Zealand
    oscarazal said...
    Quite interesting, but in reason 1 either I missed something or you meant verb-preposition.

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