The Problem of Translating – Where Do We Start…?

Here at uTalk, we’re five years into our epic project to localise our app in over 200 languages. Lovers of uTalk will know that we’ve already released over 130 languages, and there are plenty more in production as we speak, including Manx, Dzongkha, Shanghainese and Lebanese Arabic. Whenever we produce a new language, we do a huge amount of research and consult with our language specialists to solve any tricky issues which may result from one language having far more nuances than another. For example, we may need to decide the best way to translate the word wall from English into a language which has different words for an interior and an exterior wall. Or the most appropriate way to translate ‘lemon and ‘lime’, which in English are considered two separate fruits, when other languages may have just one term to refer to them both.

We could talk at enormous lengths about little vocabulary quirks like these, but over the next few weeks we’ll be sharing with you the three most persistent issues we encounter. They indicate not simply vocabulary differences, but differences in the perception of the world through those languages.

First off, let’s look at time…


Time can be difficult enough when you first learn it in your own language as a child, and it causes endless problems for learners of additional languages. Let’s suppose you’re an English native speaker, and you decide to learn German. You’ve got to grips with your numbers (eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf…) and so you’d naturally expect that halb drei would indicate half past three. Literally, halb = half, and drei = three. Simple! Hurray! But wait a minute – why did you just turn up an hour late to an appointment? What happened? Turns out you didn’t know that whilst in English we count on from the hour that has just gone (half past two), in German we count into the hour which is happening (half of the third hour). So half drei = half past two, and to understand that you need to be thinking in terms of the next hour rather than the previous one.

Now let’s move continents, to equatorial Africa. In Swahili, most learners who’ve diligently learnt their numbers are utterly and understandably bewildered when they first encounter time. ‘Let’s meet at saa tisa kamili’, your friend might say and, translating literally in your head, you’d think, right, tisa = nine, so we’re meeting at nine o’clock! And then you’d turn up six hours too early (or too late), because in Swahili, the day begins at what English speakers would call 6am. The first hour of the day (saa mojo kamili literally, one o’clock) is therefore equivalent to the English seven o’clock, and so it goes on until you get to saa tisa kamili (actually three o’clock), and beyond.

Confused? You’re not on your own!

Language Producer

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