I've got a magic item that translates languages.

The rules are this: the closest word to the word used in meaning is given to the listener, unless there's something the other language doesn't have a word or concept for, in which case the original language is used.

But what I am looking for are instances where the closest word doesn't quite convey the connotative meaning in the other culture/language.

I'm looking for a place to start as far as misunderstandings of meaning are concerned, looking at real world examples. What sorts of things, given these parameters are more likely to be lost in translation?

EDIT CLARIFICATION: Translation goes sentence by sentence to avoid syntax issues.


23 Answers 23


"But what I am looking for are instances where the closest word doesn't quite convey the connotative meaning in the other culture/language."

I for one would argue that the vast majority of translatable words suffer from this issue - it varies in degree from case to case.

For example even a simple word like "wood" - in English can mean either


1. the hard fibrous material that forms the main substance of the trunk or branches of a tree or shrub, used for fuel or timber.


2. an area of land, smaller than a forest, that is covered with growing trees.

definition from oxford dictionary

There are a few sub-definitions as well, but we can ignore those for now.

What's interesting is that when you translate "wood" into spanish for definition 1, you get the word Madera


1. Hard and fibrous substance that forms the trunk and the branches of the trees. The trunk is thicker than the branches

2. Piece of wood cut or carved.

3. Talent or innate ability to do something. This child plays the piano very well, has wood as a musician; The young actress is very excited because Almodóvar said she has wood and, logically, should take this opportunity

4. Set of wind orchestra instruments that are blown directly or by means of one or two tabs.

5. Horny material of which the hull of the cavalry is composed.

definition also from oxford, translated through google

The first definition of both of these is the same, but the interesting thing is that they each have their own alternate definitions. In spanish, "Madera" never means "an area of land, smaller than a forest, that is covered with growing trees". In English, if you tell someone they "have wood" (Madera definition 3) they won't take it to mean "talent or innate ability". Believe it or not I had no idea what the spanish word for "wood" would throw up in terms of alternate defintions, it's pure happenstance that this example would be quite an amusing misunderstanding.

At the very basic, word for word level, it's this kind of thing that gets lost in translation. There are very few words which translate perfectly between languages, and even fewer that translate perfectly between all languages, because even if you can match up one definition, the alternate definitions are always slightly different.

And when you get beyond the word for word level - when you're working with phrases and sentences, the problem gets even worse. I don't know if the spanish say "touch wood" or "we're not out of the woods yet", but if not and you translate these phrases literally, you lose the fact that you're quoting a popular idiom, as well as the intended meaning.

Poems are completely different when translated, because the translated words don't necessarily rhyme, or they are different lengths, throwing the rhythm completely. Translating poems has to be insanely difficult if you want to preserve the artistry as well as the meaning.

  • $\begingroup$ In Latin, wood¹ is lignum but wood² is silva. In Ancient Greek it's xylos and hylē. $\endgroup$ – Draconis May 23 '17 at 23:58
  • $\begingroup$ Meaning 4 would presumably translate back as "woodwind". Meaning 5 I think is talking about the walls of a horse's hoof, and I don't know that there is an English word for that material specifically. Wikipedia describes them as "keratinised", but that's an adjective that could apply to any horny material. $\endgroup$ – armb Jun 11 '18 at 14:17

Idioms and word play are but a couple of things that get lost in translation. I suspect this is because these are treated as discrete, rather than understood in a dynamic sense. What I mean is that literal translations aren't necessarily ideal, so a dynamic approach attempts to convey what would otherwise be metaphoric or idiomatic in the original language.

To offer a real-world example, raining cats and dogs means it is raining heavily. If "cat" and "dog" were taken discretely, people of different backgrounds would imagine cats and dogs literally falling from the sky. Or you might imagine a misunderstanding of, "Throw me a freakin' bone, will ya?"

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    $\begingroup$ In Slavic cultures (Czech at least), we let wheelbarrows rain instead :-D $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak May 23 '17 at 8:04
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    $\begingroup$ Raining cats and dogs may be messy, I would be far more scared of wheelbarrows! In Scotland you also have "It's coming down in buckets" and the Norwegian Det regner trollkjerringer (its raining female trolls) is truly nightmarish! $\endgroup$ – GMasucci May 23 '17 at 9:43
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    $\begingroup$ Hailing taxicabs. $\endgroup$ – WGroleau May 23 '17 at 10:20
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    $\begingroup$ In Poland water is "coming down in buckets" ("leje jak z cebra") too, but sometimes whole clouds are torn away from the sky and fall down ("urwanie chmury") $\endgroup$ – charlie_pl May 23 '17 at 10:46
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    $\begingroup$ Ah, apologies. We do let water pour out of watering cans in Czechia. Falling wheelbarrows refer to hail. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak May 23 '17 at 11:34

This translation strategy does not work at all. Translation is never done word-by-word, but at least sentence by sentence or, better, paragraph by paragraph. To understand why, let's imagine that the space of meanings is a tridimensional continuum, which is divided it into boxes corresponding to words; each language divides the space of meanings in different ways, so that words in different languages rarely cover the same meanings; moreover, each language has its own space of meanings, with different axes and different metrics.

Isolated words simply cannot be translated meaningfully from one language to another. For example:

  • French "canal" may mean a "channel", or a "canal", or a "sewer", or a "sluice", or a "conduit", ... To chose one of those meanings you need more context.

  • More interestingly, syntax is usually profoundly different between different languages. For example, the French word "personne" usually means a "person", but the French language has syntactic constructions where it means "nobody". For example, "Personne ne l'a vu" means "Nobody saw him", not "Person not him has seen". Russian is notorious for not having articles and for not using a copula, so that English words such as "a", "the", "am" or "is" cannot be translated directly; English is notorious for using the zero article to indicate generality, so when translating English "Whales are mammals" into French "Les baleines sont des mammifères" two articles must appear out of nowhere.

  • Prepositions are a killer. There is simply no way to translate prepositions directly; each language has its own catalog of prepositions, and translation must take meaning into account. For example, the English preposition "in" usually corresponds with French "dans", but it is equally possible to correspond to "à", "chez", or "en"; English "on" is usually French "sur", but it is equally possible to correspond to "à" ("on foot" is "à pied"), to "en", ("on vacation" is "en vacance") or to zero (English "on Monday" is French "lundi", with no preposition).

  • Many languages have grammatical genders, and those seldom correspond. When generating text in the target language adjectives need to take the gender of the nouns they determine, not the gender the source language adjectives:

    English: a beautiful girl

    French: une belle fille

    German: ein schönes Mädchen

    (The adjective "belle" is feminine; the corresponding German "schönes" is neuter, because it must take the grammatical gender of the noun "Mädchen".)

    When translating personal pronouns (assuming that both languages even have personal pronouns) one cannot blindly translate the pronouns, one must take into account the grammatical gender of their antecendents; for example

    English: This ship is the Titanic. She is going to New York.

    French: Ce paquebot est le Titanic. Il va à New York.

    (Il is the 3rd person singular masculine pronoun, but here it translates English she.)

And then of course you have fixed phrases or idioms which have their own meanings which cannot be derived from the meanings of their constituents. Idioms such as "to get to the bottom" of a problem, "to hit the road", "the whole nine yards", or "by hook or by crook" cannot be translated word for word, unless one is trying for a humoristic effect.

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    $\begingroup$ Translation by humans is not done word-by-word. Google Translate makes no attempt to do a grammatical or semantic analysis of its input; it just applies a Markov model to sequences of individual words in one language and tries to make the best correspondence to sequences of words in other languages. Which is why if you type in bits of United Nations public documents into Google Translate you get great translations. Everything else, not so much. $\endgroup$ – Eric Lippert May 23 '17 at 23:23
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP: So just to be clear, your claim is that when Google Translate says "Google's free service instantly translates words..." and when Microsoft Translator says "Microsoft Translator enables you to translate text or speech,..." and so on, that they are lying? or are they perhaps merely mistaken about the service they are providing, and in fact they provide some service other than translation? I find this claim... interesting. $\endgroup$ – Eric Lippert May 24 '17 at 0:17
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    $\begingroup$ @EricLippert: They provide free services transforming input text in output text, which, in most situations, can be interpreted by a human reader as translation. It is a very valuable service because, for example, without it I cannot read Chinese at all; however, since the computers which do the text transformation do not actually extract meaning from the input text the results are unrealiable. For example, there was a recent article discussing how Bing made the French phrase "mes chers compatriotes" translate to "my fellow Americans". $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 24 '17 at 0:26
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    $\begingroup$ @EricLippert: So they are not lying, they are just describing the function of their services; it doesn't matter that what the machine does is not actually translating the input text if the humans who read the output perceive it as a translation. Neither Google nor Bing will take any responsibility for the equivalence of the input and output texts: the services are provided "as is". They are infinitely better than nothing and quite a lot better than previous efforts at machine translation. $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 24 '17 at 0:30
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    $\begingroup$ @EricLippert: Google Translate has transitioned away from Markov models to neural networks translating sentences for lots of language pairs. $\endgroup$ – ninjalj May 25 '17 at 10:14

Sarcasm, idioms, slang, and hyperbole

Your translator seems very literal, which means that quirks of language will be missed. For example:

In English when someone makes a mistake you yell fail

In Italian (and when and where I visited) for the same act, they yelled Flauto which directly translates to flute. Which has little to do with failure.

There are plenty of other examples but the best is everyone's favorite four letter word that starts with an f and ends like firetruck. Imagine it's literal meaning added to each of these examples.

Languages rely heavily on context and the speakers themselves, and while I suppose not outside the bounds of a magical object, require a powerful translator to avoid loosing any information.

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    $\begingroup$ Flauto? This sounds pretty new to me, and I speak italian for more than 30 years... $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch May 23 '17 at 6:17
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch I'm 50/50 on wether or not they were pulling my leg or not. This was in Loano Italy and I had made friends with some locals. It could be local slang but I'm really not sure. My girlfriend at the time (she was Italian) said it was a real thing. Though, she dumped me on my birthday via text so I don't know if she could be trusted. In any case they sure did use it as slang for fail. $\endgroup$ – Joe Kissling May 23 '17 at 6:28
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    $\begingroup$ The closest italian word I can recall sounding like flauto is fallito, which is the precise translation of fail. Maybe it was a local slang popped up after some foreigner mispelled fallito with flauto... $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch May 23 '17 at 6:48
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch your guess is as good as mine. $\endgroup$ – Joe Kissling May 23 '17 at 6:51
  • $\begingroup$ There is an Italian language SE. $\endgroup$ – WGroleau May 23 '17 at 10:23

Countless possibilities.

  • Language A has a word for a guy who spends his time celebrating instead of working. It has connotations of happy-go-lucky, relaxed, slightly irresponsible. Language B also has a word for a guy who spends his time celebrating instead of working. It has connotations of lazy, stoned, completely irresponsible. Think reveler vs. drunkard. That makes the magic translation a grave insult.
  • Language A sees an entrepreneurial mindset as a good thing. Language B despises money-grubbing merchants.
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    $\begingroup$ In other words, the difference between connotation and denotation. $\endgroup$ – Phiteros May 23 '17 at 5:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Phiteros no. It is culture behind the connotations. Warmonger Culture A might see a warmongering country as a respectable country, but the Pacifist Culture B might see them as a barbaric country. $\endgroup$ – Vylix May 23 '17 at 7:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Vylix well, that's still connotation and denotation. For example, a word that means literally "something someone believes in" could be translated as either "faith" or "belief". "Faith" has more legitimacy and implies religion, whereas "belief" can be more of a personal opinion. Both translations are correct, but will convey different meanings. $\endgroup$ – Phiteros May 23 '17 at 13:33

Schadenfreude doesn't stand a chance, nor does verschlimmbesserung, one of my favourite German words and which probably applies directly to this answer.

There's another problem, that being word for word translation. I apologise to any non-native English speakers for the following: The bowman in the bow took a bow before stringing his bow that was cut from a bough of the great yew tree in Bow. Any straight word for word translator would fail completely on that sentence, it'd probably take a couple of attempts even for a native speaker who knows where Bow is.

This leaves us with homonyms and place names with easily identified meanings. Mill Hill, Bow, Mile End, Wood Green, translating these as words hinders rather than helps.

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    $\begingroup$ "in the bow took a bow ... his bow" : I would expect a magic item to cope with that. There are three different words all spelt "b" "o" "w" in English. $\endgroup$ – Martin Bonner May 23 '17 at 8:27
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    $\begingroup$ @MartinBonner 3 words and a place with 2 pronunciations and another word with the same pronunciation. Whether your magic item can cope is up to the author really. Does it see the fundamental meaning of the word in the mind of the speaker, in which case all the answers are invalid, or does it understand only the pronunciation/spelling. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix May 23 '17 at 8:55
  • $\begingroup$ +1 because I was going to suggest homophones and homonyms. Accent and pronunciation will also be issues, especially as some words can be homophones for some accents but not others of the same language. $\endgroup$ – Simba May 23 '17 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ @MartinBonner "When the award was announced for the most rose rose, Rose rose to accept it." Also, "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo." $\endgroup$ – Draco18s May 23 '17 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ Your examples of Wood Green, and so on, remind me of some jokes that Tolkien snuck into The Lord of the Rings place names: "Bree-Hill" and "Chetwood", "bree" and "chet" being Welsh for "hill" and "wood". $\endgroup$ – Eric Lippert May 23 '17 at 23:21


Idioms, sayings, and such stems from this, but culture is broader than just those. Although you can literally translate to the closest word, but you can't translate the culture behind the word or phrase.

One might not account the importance of crown, as it might get translated to "hat", because the target language never known a "crown". Surely, it's just another "hat", but the wearer of the crown has such importance that the trinket user might not grasp the meaning of "is crowned".

Other side of culture is mannerism. Although it is generally known that bowing your head is a form of respect, a being without a head might see bowing head as a strange gesture and just take it literally as simply bowing head.

Or worse, some of our friendly gestures might be taken as a threat, or offensive. I've read somewhere in Africa spitting on someone's face means you respecting him. Wondered what happens if our president goes there for a visit.

You might consider this item translates via thoughts, instead of words. By imagining things happened, one can better understand just beyond words.

  • $\begingroup$ I wouldn't say you can't translate culture. You can, it's called localization. What I would say is that translating the words and translating the culture aren't the same thing, not by a kilometre, and it might require significant alterations and will ask for more intelligence than the magic thingy has. Translating language directly at thought-level would be a good way to get around that, so get my +1. $\endgroup$ – AmiralPatate May 23 '17 at 7:55
  • $\begingroup$ The solution is simple: translate "crowned" as "given a gold hat", then print a second book that explains, among others, the cultural significance of gold hats in that period of Earth history. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak May 23 '17 at 8:12
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    $\begingroup$ @JanDvorak given exposure to the culture (at least the book explaining the culture), they might understand it eventually, but I imagine this will be "useless" on a first contact. Who knows when we bow our head to honor an alien means we voluntarily request to be beheaded? Or giving salute may be taken as activating laser from our eyes. $\endgroup$ – Vylix May 23 '17 at 10:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Vylix Indeed, that's probably how bowing started - a gesture of submission, similar to a dog exposing his (defenceless) belly to the alpha. When you're bowing, you're basically forfeighting a (potential) fight - yielding authority. In certain situations, that might have literally meant offering yourself to be beheaded (e.g. accepting the judgment for a crime, even if it is capital punishment) - but times and contexts change. How does the magical translation tool pick the appropriate time and context between the two people trying to communicate? This is the same for words, not just idioms. $\endgroup$ – Luaan May 23 '17 at 12:01

I have a real world example - I was explaining to a group Chinese some details concerning medieval history of my country. I later learnt that in translation all such terms like emperor / king / prince, which mattered quite a lot were ending as single Chinese equivalent, so it was impossible to notice there any hierarchy.

So I see great potential here, when actual magic is involved. It's not only that "president" may be translated in to "chieftain". It's actually fine. The problem is that "prime minister", "general", "dean", "colonel", "speaker of parliament", "CEO" - may also end up as chieftain.

"Priest" and "doctor" may end up as "shaman".

"Chief priest" could be either "bishop" or "healthcare minister".

"Nurse" -> "midwife" (would mislead concerning her specialty)? Or maybe "nun" (would imply being a part of convent)?

There would be even more fun, how such spell would deal with euphemisms.


You can generate some wonderful examples using Google Translate.

For example take the English sentences

"Man, that dope ride is sick! My mom is sick, she's got pneumonia."

Translate them to a foreign language. Then copy that text and paste it back into Google translate, back to English.

The above two sentences, translated to Mongolian, then back to English, become:

"Man, he was sick to go dark! My mother has pneumonia, he is sick."

Idioms, synonyms, and slang will be butchered horribly by your spell. Note that even Google's far more complex algorithm fails with the slang use of sick. It even gets gender wrong in the translation, since I promise that my mother is not a "he."

Another example:

"I loved her. We made love under the lovely moon."

To Mongolian and back to English becomes

"I loved him. We made love under the beautiful moon."

Google made me gay.

While I have nothing against homosexuality, I'm not in favor of translation tools forcing a change to my sexual orientation.

The above two examples were truly random word choices on my part. But I can only imagine how your word-for-word translator would choke on complex diplomatic language.

A final example of that, the 1st sentence to the US Declaration of Independence is:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Translated to Mongolian and back to English, this becomes:

During the time of the event the liquidation of one of those bands by connecting them and a political need to wait among the world powers, the separate and equal environment, nature and God, the basis for legislation, they release a good opinion of mankind honor required to declare the reasons impel them.

Again, this is with Google, which is using a more complex translation algorithm than your word-for-word. But similar shenanigans would occur.

Also, your spell's "artificial intelligence" would need to grasp synonyms and their meaning. For example, ancient Greek had five words that roughly translate into the single word "Love" in English. Or if this is a sound-based system, would your spell cope correctly with to/too/two or their/there/they're during translations?

These are just some of the stumbling blocks you'll face.

I encourage you instead to find a small fish. It is far less likely to cause some sort of diplomatic / social incident due to translation failures.

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    $\begingroup$ "Google made me gay." Damn these big companies dictating how to live our lives... +1 $\endgroup$ – Secespitus May 23 '17 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ You made the point I wanted to make :( One thing that can show some of the issues with this even better is if you take a document originally not in English and shove it through a translator. Another issue that comes up in at least Japanese -> English is that they use context way more than we do so large parts of sentences appear to be missing if you go for a literal translation. $\endgroup$ – Pork May 23 '17 at 21:57

Consider the second person singular pronoun. In modern English it is "You". In German, there are different pronouns for people you are familiar with (Du) and those you address formally (Sie). To refer to someone with "Du" is to "duzen" them. In the German version of Downton Abbey, the Earl of Grantham would refer to his butler as "Du", but the butler would always refer to Lord Grantham as "Sie". Lord Grantham would be offended if a social inferior duzen'ed him. He might say "Duzen du mich?" which ends up as as "Are you you-ing me?"

(Aside: If translating to Shakespearean English, the device would produce : "Dost thou thou me?" - which works perfectly well.)

If the device doesn't handle word order, then that is another huge problem. English depends on word order. "The dog bites the boy" and "the boy bites the dog" are completely different meanings. In a fully inflected language like Latin, "puer canem mordet" and "canem puer mordet" are the same meaning, although one is more idiomatic than the other. If you want to say "The dog bites the boy" you have to say "canis puerum mordet" or "puerum canis mordet".

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding Martin Bonner! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Very interesting answer. Looking forward to your contributions. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus May 23 '17 at 8:51
  • $\begingroup$ That said, being "surprised" by Du-Sie presumes that by default, you consider language to be symmetric. This certainly isn't the case on Earth - (modern) English is one of the outliers (and even there, you'll find plenty of cases of assymetry - e.g. "borrow" vs. "lend"). This probably contributed to the image of American tourists as "rude" - if your language has ten different "honorifics" you're supposed to use based on the exact context and assumed respect of both parties, you're probably going to anger a venerable wise man by talking to him as if he were a little boy. $\endgroup$ – Luaan May 23 '17 at 12:12

You lose the context, you cannot do direct translation from one language to another meaningfully if they have different grammar structures, and many languages are contextual. So the same word can mean several different things depending on the rest of the sentence and sometimes the paragraph. An example would be Samoan.

Depending on context the word mumu has several meanings

hum, flame, red, a type of dress

Or the word tau

war, fight, narrate, almost, confess, declare, charge, price

(and more)

You can also lose the number, many languages don't denote plurals like English. So where English has house, houses, other languages have a different way of doing plurals and just one word for house. So direct translation would make you think it's just one house but they might be talking about several.

Context, meaning and plurals are key factors in any complex communication, even simple things like asking directions become problematic if they tell you to '

pass three right hand turns

and you translate that to

pass one right hand turn

Or you translate it to

stop turning the chicken on the right side


Here is a specific real-world example.

The head of the Soviet Union once (in)famously said "We Will Bury You".

This is what the translator chose to say in English. To Americans, this came across as a direct threat, and heightened the tensions of the Cold War.

The actual meaning of the Russian idiom, "My vas pokhoronim", would be better stated in English as "We will be present at your funeral", or to match it to an American idiom, "It's your funeral".

So rather than being the dire threat that it was received as, it was actually more of an attempt as a humorous claim that the communist economic system would defeat the capitalist economic system.


Looking for examples…

I am currently working at a hostel with Dutch people. When I speak Dutch, what should be a pharyngeal fricative is instead uvular, and my colleague says it "sounds not nice." I don't know his exact meaning, but I am certain he doesn't mean that I sound hostile.

Consider in American English how "I said" was replaced by "I went" and then by "I'm like."

Or how "sick" has somehow become a positive adjective, and "gay" went from happy to homosexual to … not sure exactly what "that's gay" means today.

Check out the video "A Wicked Deception."

  • $\begingroup$ Came across another example today: a brochure for a retirement/assisted living home in Spain, describing it as "Hogar - Residencia de la Tercera Edad" (literally, "Home - Residence of the Third Age"). What does "third age" mean to most English speakers? :-) $\endgroup$ – WGroleau May 24 '17 at 16:35

An example from programming langauges: there is a problem explaining “monad” to conventional (procedural, object-oriented, etc.) programmers.

I humourously blogged

Meanwhile, I’ve read that monads have a strange property: anyone who comes to understand it loses any ability to explain it to others. That reminds me of the science fiction novel Babel-17. In fact as in the story, language influences thought and perception, which is what I was getting at earlier in this essay. Being a writer on programming topics, I thought I’d take that as a challenge. Maybe I’ll write a truly good explanation of monads; or maybe it will end up joining the hundreds of others that are are either indecipherable or lack proper deep meaning. (See also monad tutorial fallacy)


You should inderstand the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. There is no matching word, close or otherwise.

That makes me think of translating words you simply don’t know the meaning of, even if they do have translations. The dictionary can tell you what “financial derivative” is, but having done so you still don’t know what it means. So for words with no translation, making up a transliteration on the spot would be just fine.

  • $\begingroup$ Hmmm … "financial derivative", is that differential calculus applied to money? And a translation is when you move things around. :-) $\endgroup$ – celtschk May 23 '17 at 9:49
  • $\begingroup$ I recall seeing it used in a TV mystery as a fake “cover” job to tell people, since nobody really knows what that is. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 23 '17 at 18:39

The short answer? Literally everything.

You don't need to come up with idioms or slang or any other complex language constructs. This strategy fundamentally doesn't work from the beginning, because languages do not have a one-to-one correspondence for words. When slang and idioms are used, you're going to get complete nonsense. But even in the normal case, when people are using straight-forward, expressive language, you're going to get a google-translate-esque mishmash of awkward words that is often barely comprehensible.

Just as a random example, in Chinese there is a single common word that refers to both alligators and crocodiles. It's somewhat awkward to specify only a single one. (This is similar to how we have "elephant," and it's a bit unusual to specify African or Asian elephant.) English is the opposite: the common words specify which one you're talking about, and it's somewhat awkward to say "order crocodilia." (As an English speaker, do you know the difference between crocodilia and crocodylidae without looking it up? Do you remember whether order or family is higher in the biological taxonomy?)

There are literally thousands, perhaps millions, of these examples. This magic will be something of a toy. It might help tourists if it's commonly available, but any serious translation work will still be done by professional translator humans in this world.

  • $\begingroup$ Same thing for sheep and goats in Chinese. Conversely, Chinese does have words for peanut, hazelnut, walnut, but it doesn't have a colloquial word that includes all of them. $\endgroup$ – user2727 May 24 '17 at 8:56
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    $\begingroup$ @KWeiss Considering they are in different families, the fact that English lumps peanuts in with hazelnuts and walnuts as if they were actual nuts is actually nuts. $\endgroup$ – Caleb May 25 '17 at 9:15

The Korean word 친구 (cheen-gu) is translated into English as 'friend', but encompasses the cultural idea that a 친구 must be born in the same calendar year as you. In Korean, there is no closer translation for the word friend, but unlike the English word, 친구 does not mean someone who you like and who likes you.

In addition to not having a real word for the idea of 친구 in English, we don't by default have a cultural understanding of why on earth that would ever matter, which makes it difficult to try to capture the intent of a Korean speaker without pausing mid-conversation to explain Korean culture.

Another apt example is the translations for fruits and vegetables in Korean - 과일 (gwah-eel) and 야채 (yah-cheh) respectively. Although they are the closest and most direct translations we have, the ideas are defined differently, which leads to many Koreans classifying things like cantaloupe, watermelon, and strawberries as 야채, though English speakers would usually classify them as fruits.

Again, if you wanted to make it clear in a translation, you would need to stop mid-conversation to explain the Korean definitions of 야채 and 과일.

  • $\begingroup$ en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cohort Cohort may be a better translation than friend in your first example, but cohort is fairly archaic $\endgroup$ – apaul Jul 18 '17 at 18:05

Many of the other answers here have brought up perfectly valid points, but I feel like most of them are missing the forest through the trees. It isn't just the subtleties of idioms or the layers of sarcasm that will trip up such a magic device. The problem is a lot more basic than that.

Language is a tool that conveys meaning, but meaning is not an equation where you fill in the blanks. You cannot effectively translate between languages without an intermediate stop of understanding the intended meaning in a sort of abstract form that does not correspond to the range of meanings a dictionary might give.

The rules are this: the closest word to the word used in meaning is given to the listener…

This is a recipe for disaster. Lets try a simple example. You are hosting two Turkish guests and using your magic device to translate their answers.

You: Would you like some tea?
Guest 1: Teşekkürler.
Guest 2: Eyvallah.

In both of these cases Google Translate is doing exactly what your device does: picking a word with the nearest semantic range of meaning. My question for you is simple: which guest wants tea and which one is politely refusing?

I've shortened this example as much as possible, but this is a very real world scenario. In the face of some questions in Turkey saying just "thank you" is a legitimate way to mean "no thanks". There is no work involved that actually means no that your translation device would pick up on. You have to understand the people and the social context for this to make any sense. In fact depending on which part of Turkey you are in the example might involve another variant of thanks (Sağolun) and might be reversed. The point is a magic device that takes a range of semantic meanings and maps them to another language will sometimes let you down badly at the task of communication.

In this example a simple yes or no response to a basic question is lost. It's an uphill battle from there.


There are many words which are not well defined by a definition at all. They are words that one is expected to learn the meaning of over a lifetime instead of reading about them in a book. "Life" may indeed be one of them, as is "love" and "happiness." These words always seem simple to us, but we find them ineffable when someone asks how you define them. One of my favorite lectures from Alan Watts includes turning the concept of "Life is a journey" on its head, and we've heard that particular phrase for most of our lives!

Sometimes cultures do not have the same set of these words. One prominent example is Chinese and English. Many words like Chi are brutally difficult to translate meaningfully. Chi, in particular, is most often translated as "energy," which is probably its closest English translation, but many prefer to translate it more literally as "breath," because "energy" misses the mark by so much that it can actually get in the way of those who hear that translation first.

And, of course, you have the Tao. Such a frustrating concept to learn from a book!

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The Tao is both named and nameless. As nameless it is the origin of all things; as named it is the Mother of 10,000 things. Ever desireless, one can see the mystery; ever desiring, one sees only the manifestations. And the mystery itself is the doorway to all understanding


There are several ways this can break.

Robert Asprin had something like this in his Phule series. The hero Willard Phule used a play on words to name himself "Jester" So, Captain Jester meets with aliens who use a translator and call him "Captain Clown".

Similes such as clown or jester can break a translator.

Any contextual languages such as German or Japanese, where the meaning of the word can change based on the word next to it can trip up translations

Languages such as Chinese where voice modulation changes the meaning of the word. Bonus points for Chinese where a poem can loose all meaning when sung because the inflections are no longer there.

Concepts where there are no direct translations. Gestalt in German simply does not translate to English nor does Schadenfreude.

Words that describe stimulus or feelings not experienced by your aliens may trip up your translator as well.

  • The color "red" to a species that does not see the color
  • Hunger to mech life might translate as low on energy, but so would fatigue
  • Loneliness to a species that is part of a hive or group mind.

Homophones could trip it up, as could homographs and homonyms. "Lance Bass had his bass player with him on the army base"

Idioms, slang and colloquialisms could do serious damage as well.

In German, the phrase that is the English equivalent to "leave a tip" literally translates to "Drink Gold".

Borrowed words and phrases. Adding to the confusion, many languages will borrow phrases or terms from other languages. It's not uncommon for an English speaker to use the German words Schadenfreude or Gestalt, as those terms don't translate to English. Our English speaker may also use the French c'est la vie or call someone "el Loco" or something like that.

You have a wealth of opportunities!

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Re your last point -- not only do words get "borrowed" by other languages, but they often shift in meaning in the process. One that springs to mind is the English word "petty", which started out as French "petit" meaning "small". But "petty" in English now has a significantly different meaning. $\endgroup$ – Simba May 23 '17 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ " voice modulation changes the meaning of the word. " is, I believe, true for any language. "Trinkgeld" does not translate to "drink gold", it's "money for / from drinking". The phrase "leave a tip" is "give drinking money". Your examples from German and Chinese are misleading. The OP also stated that words that don't have an equivalent won't be translated. $\endgroup$ – user2727 May 24 '17 at 8:49
  • $\begingroup$ @KWeiss Your comment is 100% inaccurate. $\endgroup$ – Richard U May 24 '17 at 10:50
  • $\begingroup$ @RichardU if you can show me the inaccurate part, I'll delete it. $\endgroup$ – user2727 May 24 '17 at 12:21
  • $\begingroup$ @KWeiss start here theepochtimes.com/n3/… Also the fact that trinken geld is understood to men drinking money does NOT negate the fact that it's literal translation means to drink gold. It's origin was the fact that tips were left in the steins, so you tipped the stein and instead of the beer, you "drank the gold" that was left in it. $\endgroup$ – Richard U May 24 '17 at 13:03

But what I am looking for are instances where the closest word doesn't quite convey the connotative meaning in the other culture/language.

If you want to understand how big an issue this is, start by looking at The Bible.

There are literally dozens of English translations of The Bible. All of them started with the same source material, but there are significant differences between them.

The differences are due to the fact that ancient Greek and ancient Hebrew are radically different languages to modern English. Translating word-for-word is absolutely impossible.

Biblical translators have to make frequent choices where they have to pick one word over another where the actual correct translation is somewhere in between the two, and maybe with undertones of some other concepts as well.


In addition to all of the other answers, cultural artifacts get lost. You can easily translate phrases like "Good Samaritan" or "crossing the Rubicon" literally, but without the shared cultural knowledge of what those phrases mean, the listener will miss out on much of the meaning.


There are a lot of subtleties that would be lost in a word-for-word mechanical translation. For instance, poetry would be flattened into prose. Literary allusions and cultural references would lose some or all of their connotation. Shifts in diction might not be apparent.

For instance, if I were to say, "To be or not to be, that is the question", most of us will recognize it as a reference to Hamlet's soliloquy in Shakespeare's play, and any native English speaker would notice the sentence sounds different from normal speech. Depending on context, I might be talking about despair, or about profoundly difficult choices, or I might be mocking someone for melodramatic behavior. Those depend on recognizing that I'm making an allusion, and what I'm alluding to.


There's the old joke about a Spanish speaker who wants to say "entre no más y tome una silla" in English. So he looks up all the words in the dictionary and comes out with "between no more and drink a chair".


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