What are the most dfficult languages to translate?

Published on 09/05/2022

Given the complexity of some languages, when translating, it’s essential to trust a professional and experienced specialized translator with perfect language command, in order to guarantee high-quality results which are completely understandable. A translation job can be a real challenge, but what are the most difficult languages to translate?

With around 7000 different languages worldwide, the language difficulty lies in the individual translator and his or her native language. For example, a Spanish translator will find it much easier to translate from French or Italian, which, like Spanish, are languages of Romance origin. More challenging would be a translation from Chinese or Korean.

But regardless of the translator’s native language, some languages are generally more difficult to translate than others. And here is a ranking of the most difficult languages to translate, from UNESCO , from less difficult to most difficult.

The 8 most difficult languages to translate by UNESCO

1 - French

Although mentioned previously, that French is easier for a Spanish translator than other languages, it’s considered one of the most difficult languages to translate, due to its complex grammar and pronunciation, which are really not easy to master.

Likewise, the it gets more difficult the bigger the distance between the source language and the target language. As mentioned above, it will be more difficult to translate a text from French into Spanish or vice versa than from Chinese into French.

2 - Germanic languages

Translations from Germanic languages are also very complex, especially German, Danish and Norwegian. The same applies to learning these languages.

Its difficulty lies in its complex grammar and spelling. Like Finnish (see below), they are inflectional languages, in which the words’ grammatical relationship (case) with the other words in the same sentence may vary.

3 - Finnish

Finnish (a branch of the Uralic languages), is a variable language (inflectional and agglutinative), in which words change their structure and form, depending on their grammatical function in a sentence. A great difficulty, which obliges the translator to have a great command of the language in order to be able to produce an accurate translation.

4 - Japanese

Japanese is a language that contains grammatical formulas called Keigo or honorific language, and this is the main challenge we encounter while translating.

These are expressions that show respect for the social position of the person. Therefore, in addition to mastering grammar and vocabulary, translating from Japanese also requires a great deal of cultural knowledge.

5 - Icelandic

The challenge with Icelandic lies in the fact that it’s a language with very old rules belonging to the Nordic Germanic languages, which also has specific vocabulary and vowels that can vary according to conjugation and declination..

6 - Standard Arabic

Standard Arabic is one of the most difficult languages to master and translate, which has its own alphabet, it’s written from right to left, and has a very complex grammatical and orthographic structure. A challenge for any translator.

7 - Greek

Although simpler than Ancient Greek, Modern Greek is still a difficult language to translate which, like Arabic, has it’s own alphabet, and has very complex rules of accentuation and intonation, which is important to master in order to understand correctly.

8 - Chinese

We finish the ranking of the most difficult languages to translate with Chinese, a tonal language that relies mainly on intonation and pronunciation. Factors that the translator must master perfectly, as any small variation can change the meaning of the same word completely.

According to UNESCO, these are the 8 most difficult languages to translate. For best results, it’s best to use a native translator of the target language of the text.

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Virginia Pacheco's picture
Virginia Pacheco

Blog writer and Community Manager interested in multiculturality and linguistic diversity. From her native Venuzuela, she has travelled and lived for many years in France, Germany, Cameroon and Spain, passing on her passion for writing and her intercultural experiences.

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