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"Lost in translation"

This phrase from Clients is the nightmare of Interpreter or Translator professionals.


In order to avoid confusion and misinterpretations, we do our best to comply with high standard requirements. We deal with lawyers, medical doctors, social workers, bank officers and many others amongst our clients. They expect the highest expertise to have their consultations, speeches, documents interpreted or translated to their other parties. Being involved in different fields requires different knowledge of the special terminology they operate on. Our role is not only translating words but conveying the message between the parties. In a particular case, there is more than one adequate and equally acceptable translation for the given text. However, I must point out that what matters is the context. Words thrown into the air, have no meaning. The same word could mean absolutely something else in another context.

Let me give you an example here. Let’s translate from Hungarian into English. The word: kipakoltak (HU). Taking into consideration the fact that depending on the context it could be interpreted into English:

  • I have had hysterectomy (EN) – when a patient talks to her medical doctor in a surgery or hospital (medical terminology);

  • My furniture has been completely removed (EN) when using slang talking about the same message (slang);

  • I have been robbed (EN) (general language);

  • I have been evicted (EN):

  • They have put out their things (EN) (general language);

  • They have uploaded their luggage:

  • They have displayed their exhibits (EN) – possible description in a business material;

  • And you name it …

There are several other adequate translations if and when we are aware of the context.


In addition, based on the above-revealed examples it is also evident that two languages are not the mirror translation of each other. Given one word in a language cannot always be translated with only one word in the other language. Like: péntek (HU) Friday (EN). (HU) is an adjective meaning good in English, but again depending on the context it is not always the best solution to convey the message of the speaker towards the listener. Let me give some examples again for this without a complete list of solutions.

  • Jó. (HU) – Ok, let’s do it. or Ok, let’s go. (EN); meaning that you agree to do an activity.

  • Jó. (HU) – Fair enough. (EN); you draw the conclusion. Accept the situation.

  • Jó! (HU) – Well done. Good job. It’s perfect. or It’s perfectly fine with me. (EN) you praise or accept someone’s efforts.

Another tricky field of translation is when we mention phrases, jokes or expressions. Each and every language has its own individual cultural background. There are different dialects, customs, you name it. If we are lucky there are similar expressions with similar meanings to certain expressions and phrases, on the other hand, it’s a slippery field to translate them. 


Once I was interpreting at a Crown Court trial, the Judge insisted on translating the Hungarian expression of Egyem a szíved! word by word. Well, I said. It does not make any sense translating it word by word as it will sound cannibalism: Let me eat up your heart. Although, it is a nice phrase that we usually tell kids when we find them cute. So Egyem a szíved! (HU) means ’You are cute’ in English. Or Egyem a szívét! Talking about a third person could be translated as ’Bless her/him.’