Every language has its unique features, which often cause translation problems. To solve them, one needs impeccable command of language and years of experience. Only a translator of the highest professional level can convey the meaning while preserving the traits of the source.

Difficulties might occur in the course of document translation, simultaneous interpreting, as well as translation of newspaper articles.

Journalistic writing, for instance, has the highest degree of expression. It applies to evaluation of events and scenes and mostly takes form of evaluating adjectives and adverbs. 

Here are a few examples: in Japanese, ‘wabi-sabi’ means ‘to see something beautiful in its imperfection’; in Korean, ‘nunchi’ is an ‘art to be tactful and polite’; in Hebrew, ‘chucpe’ is used to describe ‘shocking and impudent behavior, which is formally acceptable’.

Metaphors and impersonations are also commonly used for evaluation. Thus, in German, ‘Backpfeifengesicht’ means ‘a face that calls for punching’. Its closest Russian analogue is ‘кирпичапросит’ (asking for a [punch with a] brick). Hopi Indians use the word ‘koyaanisqatsi’ to describe nature that has lost equilibrium and harmony. In Portuguese, ‘desenrascanco’ is ‘a chance to bail out without a plan or any resources’. Its closest Russian equivalent is ‘родитьсяврубашке’ (to be born wearing a shirt).

Comparisons are used just as commonly for assessment. ‘L’espritd’escalier’ in French describes the feeling after a conversation, where one could say a lot, but was able to put it together only afterwards. Brazilians havethe word ‘cafune’,which means ‘stroking the hair of a loved one’.

Expression is revealed through sentence structure. Often, a single word means the sequence of action along with its effect. For instance, ‘my?t?h?pe?’ in Finnish means something stupid done be someone else, which makes you feel ashamed. ‘Iktsuarpok’ for Innu represents the following discourse of meaning: you are at home, waiting for someone who’s running late, so you start looking into the window and opening the door to see if the visitor is finally coming. In Tsonga (Bantu variety in the South Affric) ‘rwhe’ means ‘to fall and sleep on the floor, drunk and naked’.  ‘Ilunga’ (South African Congo) is a person who can forgive the first insult, turn a blind eye on the second, yet get very angry if betrayed for the third time in a row.

Colloquial, slang and even foul language often describe a certain attitude – ironic, humorous or epatage. In Gaelic, ‘sgiomlaireachd’ means ‘annoyance caused by people who distract a starving person from the food’.

Inwriting – andonlyaprofessionaltranslator can tackle such cases – the word play, idioms and puns are often used.  For instance, ‘Fonddel’air’ literally translates as ‘empty air’, although in reality it describes a situation when it’s nice and hot outside, and one should probably wear something light, but in fact it’s very cold.  ‘Bakku-shan’ in Japanese means ‘a girl who’s very attractive from the back, yet with an extremely ugly face’. In Danish, ‘kaelling’ means that a person sees women standing in the yard (restaurant, park, supermarket, etc.) and yelling at their children.

Ideally, when there is a pun in the source language, there must be a pun in the target.

German ‘Kummerspeck’ is translated as ‘a grief bacon’ but means ‘stress eating’. ‘Tingo’ (Pacific Islands) is used to describe a situation when one lends money or things from a friend until they’re completely broke.

English, Japanese, Portuguese and other languages have rarely used words with no equivalents and inadequate literal translations. For example, Honduras and Nicaragua tribes use the word ‘yuputka’ to describe a feeling when one walks through forest and hallucinates that something (probably ghosts) is touching the skin. ‘Oka’ (Ndonga, Nigeria) means ‘discomfort while urinating because of too much frogs eaten before the rain season’. ‘Tartle’ in Scottish means a desperate feeling when you have to introduce a person to someone and yet you can’t remember the name. ‘Nakakahinayang’ (Tagalog, Philippines) is a feeling of a missed opportunity, because you were too afraid to risk, yet someone tried and succeeded.  In the language of nomadic tribes of Tierra del Fuego there is a word ‘mamihlapinatapai’, which means ‘non-verbal understanding when people exchange a look and realize they want the same thing’.

In such cases, a neutral translation is used, with a clear meaning and an appropriate context. If there are no equivalents available, then translators convey the meaning with other tools, trying to preserve genre and stylistic features of the source text. Intuition (often called a ‘language hunch’) also helps a lot.

A list of examples can go on forever. The ones we’ve used, however, prove that non-translatable words can actually cause a problem that only a professional translator will be able to solve. In most cases, literal translation is out of question, and a specialist will have to use professional skills, linguistic hunch and even inventiveness to come up with an appropriate equivalent.