The extremely complex nature of language often causes great difficulty when translation is required. This blog will discuss the 3 main areas which cause the most difficulty in translation, as described in great detail in this essay. It is worth noting that most of these problems can be solved quickly by a qualified translator, but cause much more, often insurmountable, difficulty for machine translators. These three areas are ambiguity, lexical & structural mismatches, and idioms. 


The issue concerning ambiguity is that many words do not have one single meaning, instead having several different meanings. These words are  Lexically Ambiguous. Similarly, when a phrase or sentence can have more than one structure, it is said to be Structurally Ambiguous. Ambiguity is rife in all languages, it is difficult to find words and sentences that are not ambiguous in at least two ways.The problem with this is that ambiguity multiplies at an alarming rate, e.g as the essay describes, ‘a sentence containing two words, each of which is two ways ambiguous may be four ways ambiguous (2x2)’. Of course, this only escalates with longer sentences and when each word is two or more ways ambiguous, you can end up with hundreds of different analyses for just one sentence.

Lexical and Structural Mismatches

Problems also arise from lexical differences between languages. For example, differences in the ways languages classify the world, what concepts they choose to express by single words, and which they choose not to assign a word to.

Structural mismatches cause difficulty in translation as different languages use different structures for the same purpose and the same structure for different purposes.

e.g, the Japanese vowel ‘to wear’ has 7 different ways to translate depending on context! (see right for example)


wear/put on (V)   kiku

                            haku (shoes)

                             kakeru (glasses)

                             kaburu (hats)

                             hameru (gloves, etc. i.e. on hands)

                             haoru (coat)

                             shimeru (scarves, etc. i.e. round                                                    neck)

Another issue that complicates Translation is the concept of Lexical Holes, which is where one language has to use a phrase to express what another language expresses in a single word. For example, the word French ‘ignorer’ must be translated into the English phrase ‘to be ignorant of’.


Idioms are expressions whose meaning cannot be completely understood from analysing the words or phrases within it. For Example, a phrase such as ‘If Sam kicks the bucket, her children will be rich’, does not mean what it literally states, but rather means ‘if Sam dies, her children will be rich’. It is not possible to work out this meaning simply from knowledge of English grammar and understanding of the words. This problem can be solved by a qualified translator relatively easily with cultural knowledge but is often cited as one of the number one problems machine translators will never be able to effectively resolve.


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