Composing an effective translation in any field presents overarching challenges to translators of all experience levels. For one, they must master the source and target languages. They must also acquire a deep understanding of the cultures in which the languages originated. Plus, they must adapt to rapid changes in both languages through continuing education.
So, which industry generates the most difficult documents to translate? Given our globalized world and highly specialized economies, it’s hard to compare the fields that require the most technical training and the deepest translation experience. Is it more challenging for a doctor to translate a medical handbook after four years of med school and ten years as a translator or an engineer with a Ph.D. but no translating experience to translate an operating manual for a helicopter?
We know bilingual doctors and lawyers with extensive translation experience can produce high-quality translations within their respective fields, in part, due to their education and training. We wouldn’t ask a marketing executive to translate engineering plans. So, we need specialized translation experts, particularly for translations with lives riding on them. We don’t know which fields are the most difficult to translate. But, we know which translation industries are at the top of the list due to the considerable academic hurdles that must first be overcome to even qualify, including translation certification.
Most first-year translators want to enter a specialized industry for job security and higher pay. Many of them ask which field is the most difficult to translate because they know that hard work comes with a high reward. But, because it’s near impossible to quantify the difficulty of translating within disparate, specialized industries, we compiled a short list of the most challenging fields to translate.
The legal and judicial field often ranks as the most difficult to translate because legalese is a language within a language that varies from country to country. Plus, translators must understand the similarities and differences between two distinct legal processes to effect an acceptable translation that could forever impact a client’s life.
For example, an inexperienced foreign translator could easily mistake the probate court as the place where judges hand down criminal probation terms when it really handles wills and trusts issues. Also, some legal terms have multiple meanings within a single legal system, causing confusion when translated into a foreign target language. Examples include “assault,” “determine,” and “damages.”
When drafting a professional translation, nowhere are the stakes higher than in the medical field. A one-word mistranslation could turn a routine procedure into a life-threatening situation. Errors are more likely to occur in medical translation because of the complex terminology and complicated surgical procedures.
The high stakes in medical translation put a premium on accuracy and precision. What if a translator forgets to convert a medicine dosage from the Imperial system to the metric system? How easy would it be to mistranslate the “ileum” of the small intestines as the “ilium” of the pelvic bone?
Lives are often on the line in engineering fields, especially aerospace, nuclear, and automotive. Making matters even more complicated, few translators fully understand engineering jargon. They’ll encounter acronyms and abbreviations in the source language with no counterparts in the target language.
Anyone who has read the assembly instructions for a new piece of furniture understands how engineering translations can be rife with errors, even when they deal with simple subject matters. However, technical translations must remain error-free when it’s a matter of life and death. Some of the most common engineering translation errors include:
Translating with a lack of context
Failure to localize user interfaces
Using amateur, in-house translators
Foregoing a professional review process
Every year, the international banking and finance industries process millions of translated documents to open accounts, process payments, and transfer funds. One typo or misplaced comma can result in a million-dollar mistake or a violation of the law. The abstract legal fictions that keep economies growing and banks afloat only add to the complexity of financial translation.
Translating numbers proves to be as full of pitfalls as the translation of words. For example, in the Indian banking system, one hundred thousand dollars is written as $1,00,000. A brief glance by any westerner reveals an obvious problem: $1,00,000 could be misread as $1,000,000 because the number one precedes a comma. An inexperienced translator could easily cause a $900,000 mistake.
Marketing and advertising drive much of the global translation industry. Major corporations wishing to stabilize their footholds in other countries know they must localize their marketing materials to appeal to foreign citizens and avoid offending the public—or worse, foreign governments. Midsize companies looking to break into a new market must use local translators to help them understand vastly different consumer behaviors.
Most residents in Asia shop like Americans and Europeans did only decades ago—they only buy what they need for the day. It’s not uncommon for a Chinese family to visit the local store for vegetables seven days a week. So, a commercial that promotes a decadent lifestyle of excess food, money, and material wealth might work in the West, but it will offend the sensibilities of the common man in many countries besides China.
Technology translators find themselves playing catch-up throughout their entire careers. The speeds at which new technology becomes obsolete and tech jargon evolves means they must stay on top of the latest trends and revise old content to remain thought leaders in the space. Like marketing and advertising, software and technology translation provides plenty of opportunities to offend your customer base, especially in gaming.
Gamers of the ‘80s and ‘90s will recall playing imported role-playing games from Asia. Much of the translated dialogue was comically bad because the software companies used in-house translators rather than American professionals. Decades later, gamers in Asia outnumber those of any other content, and the translations from English to Mandarin and other languages are equally poor if a specialized translator is not consulted.
Even if determining the most difficult field to translate proves impossible, we can narrow it down to the top three: medical, legal, and technical. The elevated fees that the translators in these fields charge reflect high degrees of difficulty. However, as technology expands and evolves, it could surpass all other fields as the most challenging field to translate.