“A major difficulty in translation is that a word in one language seldom has a precise equivalent in another one.” – Arthur Schopenhauer
If you are bilingual, you know the dilemma. You could be talking to a fellow English speaker about your feelings, but that one word in Spanish just keeps popping into your head – the English phrase doesn’t describe exactly what you mean. It also works the other way around – in German, for example, there is no good equivalent for the word “awkward.” Yes, there is the word “peinlich” (embarrassing) or “unangenehm” (unpleasant), but neither of these words precisely conveys all the lovely layers and feelings that “awkward” encompasses.
As a translator, the search for that perfect word is a never-ending battle. It is also a reason why translators should always translate into their native language. Even if a person is completely fluent in the second language, the word a native speaker would use may differ from the word a non-native speaker would choose. This may be a rather extreme example, but I once heard an Austrian colleague of mine telling her English students that she would not “molest them with homework tonight” (it was a little difficult for me to keep a straight face). Yes, when looked up in the dictionary, “molest” can mean “to bother, interfere with, annoy” (dictionary.com), but for native English speakers, the word has a very different connotation.
There are multiple examples from around the world of non-native translators choosing a word that would be correct in theory, but, in the context, is just plain wrong (and therefore quite funny to native English speakers). Check out these examples below:
Bucharest Hotel: The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.
Austrian Hotel: In case of fire, do your utmost to alarm the hotel porter.
Athens Hotel: Visitors are expected to complain at the office between the hours of 9 and 11 A.M. daily.
Italian Cemetery: Persons are prohibited from picking flowers from any but their own graves.
Norwegian Cocktail Lounge: Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar.
Swiss Restaurant Menu: Our wines leave you nothing to hope for.
Nairobi Restaurant: Customers who find our waitresses rude ought to see the manager.
As you can see, all of these words and sentences are grammatically correct. However, words such as “ought”, “have children”, “alarm” and so on can have more than one meaning in English, illustrating the fact that choosing the right word for a sentence is of the utmost importance. While most fully-bilingual speakers would never make such extreme mistakes, the majority of professional translators would tell you that they only translate into their native language. After all, when dealing with someone else’s documents, it is better to be safe than sorry.