Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Top 10 Most Difficult Words to Translate

After consulting with 1000 linguists, Today Translations came up with a list of ten words that were voted "hardest to translate".

Jurga Zilinskiene, head of Today Translations, which carried out the survey, had the following to say:

"Probably you can have a look at the dictionary and... find the meaning," she said. "But most importantly it's about cultural experiences and... cultural emphasis on words."

And if these are hard to translate, our heart goes out to simultaneous interpreters!

Here is the list:

1 ilunga [Tshiluba word for a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time; to tolerate it a second time; but never a third time. Note: Tshiluba is a Bantu language spoken in south-eastern Congo, and Zaire]

2 shlimaz [Yiddish for a chronically unlucky person]

3 radioukacz [Polish for a person who worked as a telegraphist for the resistance movements on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain]

4 naa [Japanese word only used in the Kansai area of Japan, to emphasise statements or agree with someone]

5 altahmam [Arabic for a kind of deep sadness]

6 gezellig [Dutch for cosy]

7 saudade [Portuguese for a certain type of longing]

8 selathirupavar [Tamil for a certain type of truancy]

9 pochemuchka [Russian for a person who asks a lot of questions]

10 klloshar [Albanian for loser]

And now, for the top 10 English words voted hardest to translate:

1 plenipotentiary

2 gobbledegook

3 serendipity

4 poppycock

5 googly

6 Spam

7 whimsy

8 bumf

9 chuffed

10 kitsch

Now, here are a few terms that have stumped many interpreters I've worked with over the years:

- Co-pay - in many countries, especially ones with national health systems, this concept does not exist, and has to be interpreted as something along the lines of, "the amount you must pay before your insurance will begin to pay."

- HMO - see above. "Health Maintenance Organizations" are corporations financed by insurance premiums subject to certain financial, geographic and professional limits.

- Escrow - An account held by the lender into which a homeowner deposits money for insurance and taxes.

- Slamming - this term is commonly used to describe an unauthorized change from one long distance carrier to another.

- Borough - One of the five administrative units of New York City. Interestingly, this term comes from Middle English burgh, city, from Old English burg, fortified town.

- Rotary - A regional term used in New England to denote what everyone else in the U.S. calls a roundabout or a traffic circle.

- Muffin - The same can be said of many other food items (donut, bagel, fudge, etc.) As is the case with many dishes, there are countries in which certain items are simply not part of the normal diet, so a description has to be used since no exact linguistic equivalent exists in many cases. These terms are more challenging for some languages than others, obviously. They frequently come up in nutritionist/dietitian appointments, especially with diabetic patients.

These are just a few - I'd love to hear from others. Feel free to email me with yours - if I get enough of them, I'll share them here in a future post.

1 comment:

Glenn Cain said...

I imagine, along with co-pay, "pre-pay" would be difficult to translate as well as "pre-approve": both inventions of credit card companies, I think;