The Top 10 Hardest Languages to Translate Into English

9 January 2022
GoTranscript Blog The Top 10 Hardest Languages to Translate Into Eng ...

Language is an evolution. Continually developing, words come and go, eliciting constant change. Right now, there are around 7,000 languages throughout the world.

Translating one language to another is an essential part of communication. However, it’s not an easy feat. Companies like GoTranscript rely on human labor to interpret words for an accurate and professional translation. Yet even for those who have built a career around expert translation, it can prove extremely difficult and is anything but straightforward. 

Ten Difficult Languages to Translate Into English

Within the 7,000 languages, there are over 135 different language families alone, based on location. They produce daughter languages, which are groupings within a certain region. The majority of the world uses one of four language families: 

  • Indo-European (English, Hindi, Russian)
  • Sino-Tibetan (Chinese, Burmese, Tibetan)
  • Niger-Congo (Swahili, Shona, Igbo)
  • Astronesian (Tagalog, Malay, Javanese) 

And if this weren’t enough, some languages are known as language isolates. This means they have not descended from anywhere.

For this list, it’s best to focus on the most common languages. So, just what languages are hardest to translate, and why? 

Korean

Korean is a language isolate, so it’s incredibly difficult to translate. It features unique syntax, grammar, and sentence structures. Plus, it has over a million words. English, by comparison, only has 250,000-300,000 active words. Therefore, word-for-word translations between the two languages often don’t exist. 

Finnish

Of the small Fino-Ugric family, Finnish has a complex grammar pattern. This language is so difficult to translate because it’s typically spoken with colloquialisms. This means that the oral word is different than the written word. 

Thai

Thai is known as a tonal language, in which the same words will have different meanings depending on the speaking tones. This almost puts translation at a total standstill. To provide an accurate result, the translator must have a deep understanding of the subject matter.

There are no capital letters in Thai, and there isn’t any spacing between the letters. On top of this, adverbs and adjectives are behind the words they modify. Translating Thai into English requires perfect fluency in both languages. 

Hungarian

Also a part of the lesser-known Fino-Ugric family, Hungarian is quite difficult to translate into English. For one, it has 35 different cases. This alone creates a massive barrier, but the hurdles don’t end here. Hungarian has unusual possession and tense rules: they’re dictated by suffixes instead of word order. 

Arabic

A highlight of Arabic compared to English is that it only has a past and present tense. However, this is a huge problem for translation. Arabic also has one of the highest amounts of regional dialects in any language, causing astronomical confusion when translating.

Vowels aren’t written in Arabic, either. And letters are scripted four different ways, dependent upon their placement within a word. All of this makes Arabic one of the hardest languages to translate. 

Mandarin Chinese

There are numerous languages within the Chinese wingspan. Mandarin is the official one, though there are many alternate languages and dialects that vary in grammar and pronunciation. This is especially rough because Mandarin is also a tonal language. Characters are also a mainstay of Chinese languages. There are three types: 

  • Pictographs (more of an archaic graphic representing objects)
  • Traditional characters (syllables, words, or meanings)
  • Simplified characters (an easier version of traditional characters) 

Russian

This Indo-European language uses the Slavic Cyrillic alphabet, containing 21 consonants, ten vowels, and two letters that don’t designate any sounds. Russian requires translators to have a spot-on mastery of grammatical rules. There are also many case endings to sift through.  

Mongolian

Somewhat of a loose hybrid between Chinese, Russian, and Finnish, Mongolian is unique unto itself. It currently uses the Cyrillic alphabet but with some added characters. However, this is not the first script Mongolian has facilitated in its lengthy history. This language is exceptionally hard for a native English speaker to learn. 

Japanese

Japanese is a complicated language to translate into English. Arguably, it’s the hardest common language. Several factors come into play when translating, beginning with the writing systems. There are four different writing systems, or alphabets, in Japanese: 

  • Kanjis are Chinese characters based on the traditional script and have alternative means when used individually or paired.
  • Hiragana works in conjunction with Kanjis. It’s used to read sounds and spell out some words or prepositions.
  • Katakana are similar to Hiragana. They also expand on Kanjis. However, they’re used for words that have a foreign origin.
  • Romaji is a Latin script. Its purpose is to transcribe Japanese for non-Japanese speakers in certain situations, such as on passports or street signs. 

Not only does the translator have to deal with these characters, but sentence structure also differs greatly between the two cultures. Every sentence needs to be broken apart and reorganized during translation. 

Polish

Though Polish is Indo-European, it has an expansion of special characters compared to English. When it comes to declensions in English, it’s limited to two. In Polish, there are 14. For example, there are 22 different ways to say “two.” Plus, there’s a free word order, meaning that a standard subject-verb-object sentence need not apply. 

Closing Remarks

Translation is hard work, regardless of the languages involved. That’s why it’s important to leave it to the pros. Why try to self-translate or utilize a means that won’t provide accurate results? With all-human translators, GoTranscript’s offers accurate and affordable translations in over 70 different language combinations!