The Beauty in the Differences of Languages
Have you ever wondered why language specialists don’t want you to just use Google Translate really quickly to translate that one sentence into several different languages?
Or why simply changing this one tiny little word in the source file is such a huge deal to them and they break out in a sweat at the mention of it?
A simple Find/Replace should do, right?!
Well, believe us when we say: We wish! Unfortunately, the reality is that different languages work very differently from one another.
You might think that it should be simple to transfer a text from one language to another, however, there is so much that goes into translation and transliteration that you may not be aware of – simply because these concepts don’t exist in your native language or any other language you have grown up with or studied sometime during your life.
Please stay with us as we will try to shine a light on some of the “inner workings”.
1. Gender nouns
Being a native speaker of German, this is the first one that comes to my mind and it is a true classic indeed. Because how does one go about explaining a concept in a foreign language that this concept is foreign to?
In English, every noun is basically neutral and goes with the article “the”, so there is “the chair”, “the street” and “the phone”. This is wonderful especially when English is acquired as a second or third language, because that makes it very easy to learn nouns. However, other languages like German, Spanish and French, for example, operate under a different system – that of gendered nouns.
For native speakers of these and many other languages, each and every thing in the world has a gender. You may think that this must be so hard to learn. We can testify that while it is easy if a person grows up with this language (because you don’t know any different and it is what you hear growing up), for learners of these languages it is an additional thing that needs to be learned by heart.
There is rarely an indication of the gender of a noun other than the article it goes together with – which also needs to be learned. So, what exactly does that mean? It means that in German “the chair” becomes “der Stuhl” (male noun), “the street” becomes “die Straße” (female noun), and “the phone” is “das Telefon” (neutral noun).
Now, wouldn’t it be nice if the gender of nouns was at least the same across different languages? Yes, that would be amazing, but – you probably guessed it – that is not the case. In Spanish, “the chair” is now “la silla” (female noun), while “the street” is “la calle” (female noun), and “the phone” is “el teléfono”.
We could add more languages to this and it is very likely that all would have a different outcome as far as which gender is used for which noun goes. You may think that this can’t possibly be such a big deal in the grand scheme of things, which brings us to our next language mechanism.
If you have learned Spanish in school, for example, you may be familiar with the concept of using different greetings if you talk to a woman or a man by using “Estimada …” or “Estimado …” respectively, or of talking about a group of girlfriends (amigas) or guy friends (amigos).
The words used in those instances change to directly reflect the gender of the person or persons that are addressed or talked about.
However, this doesn’t exclusively apply to Spanish, but many other languages as well. And it doesn’t only apply to human beings, but to all the things, and we mean ALL. THE. THINGS.
In so called “highly inflected languages”, verbs and adverbs need to be flexed depending on the gender of the subject of the sentence. So, whereas in English, only the noun or subject of a sentence changes, which can indeed be done with a simple Find/Replace search, in other languages it is not just the subject or noun that changes, but other parts of the sentences need to be changed to reflect the gender of the new noun as well.
In order to do that, a linguist can’t simply replace a word for another, but has to comb through the text carefully, as there might be more words in the same sentence, or other sentences that reference the same subject, which will have to be adjusted accordingly. This means that the more complex the sentence or the text as a whole is, the harder it gets to make those adjustments to ensure that the text is grammatically correct and can be understood.
Here are two sentences that show what this means:
|The chair is yellow.||La silla es amarilla.|
|The phone is yellow.||El teléfono es amarillo.|
Considering, that each and every noun has its own gender in most languages, it is easy to see how this can lead to a lot of work when even just one word is replaced. But there is more to consider.
3. Sentence structure
While it may be tempting to assume that the sentence structure is the same across all languages, sadly this doesn’t hold true. In many languages, the sentence structure is reverse to what it is in English.
While this usually isn’t an issue when translating a text from scratch, it may become a problem when searching for a specific word to replace. This can also be an even bigger issue, if there are blanks in the source text that need to be filled out, as the blanks may switch positions and thus making it harder for someone who doesn’t speak the target language to identify which information to put in where.
Formality is another major difference that comes to mind when thinking about the differences in languages. While this is fairly easy in English, since everyone can be addressed with “you”, other languages take the relationship between the interacting individuals into consideration.
Depending on the audience that is being addressed, there are changes in vocabulary and grammar that need to be considered. However, formality is a concept that is not only rooted in the language, but the whole culture of a country, which may change from country to country even if they share the same language.
Therefore, we consider this topic to be worthy of an entire separate blog post of its own which will be posted in the future.
While this introduction to the differences in languages is nowhere near a complete picture of all the details there are to languages (oh, alllllll those details…), we hope that it gives you an idea of what it is that language experts deal with every day. In the end, our goal is to produce an accurate, high-quality translation of your source material. Get in touch with us to talk about having your content translated.
If you are ever surprised by how long it will take to simply update one word, and why updating a text is oftentimes more expensive than re-translating, or if you wonder why a language expert isn’t thrilled at the thought of sifting through “only” 2,000 words, please sit down to have a chat with them. Ask them about the “inner workings” of their target (or possibly native) language and all its interesting features.
In the end, this is what makes our job interesting each and every day.