• Irena Kolbuszewska

"Lost in Translation" or Problems with Literal Translation


Passionate Language Stories “Lost in Translation” or Problems with Literal Translation


This post is divided into the following sections: 1. Introduction, the importance of vocabulary in the process of learning a foreign language

2. Acquiring “enough” vocabulary vs. being able to translate “every single” word from one’s mother tongue

3. The disadvantages of translating (literally) words and expressions

4. Final piece of advice (top secret ;) , shhh... )

You will also find a short vocabulary section at the end of this post for words or expressions marked in italics.

Your ability to communicate in a language depends on many factors, most importantly on your vocabulary and your ability to use it in a flexible way. Grammar is also important, but in most cases you can still get your message across if you make grammatical mistakes. However, if you don’t have enough vocabulary, you may have a difficult time expressing yourself.

The problem is, what does it exactly mean to have enough vocabulary? Students tend to focus on the vocabulary range they have in their native language and compare it to their ability to express themselves in their target language. In other words, they expect themselves to be able to translate each word from their native language to the target one and they measure themselves against this “standard”. While it is natural for beginners to ask for a translation of every single word, structure and collocation because they are just starting to explore a new language and realize how different it is from their own, it becomes more problematic in case of A2/B1 and sometimes also B2 students.

First of all, measuring your abilities in your target language by using as your point of reference your ability to communicate in your mother tongue is similar to comparing an elementary or intermediate student to an experienced professional. It’s just not fair towards the former. As an elementary or intermediate student, you shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations towards yourself. Otherwise, you risk getting frustrated, angry and disappointed with yoursel. Your self-esteem won’t definitely benefit from it.

Second of all, even if a student learns all the necessary techniques and skills, they cannot copy their teacher. They will inevitably have their own style, strengths and weaknesses. They will have access to different resources, so they will perform the same task in their own, unique way. The same thing happens when you try to communicate in your target language. You cannot copy someone else’s way of speaking nor your own way of using your mother tongue and expect it to work in your target language. At some point you need to realize, that a language cannot be copied and pasted. Each language is unique, different, it has its own set of idioms, collocations, structures, words with multiple meanings, slang words etc. Each language has a different DNA so to speak. You will have at your disposition different tools - completely different vocabulary and grammar structures than the ones you are used to in your mother tongue.

Some students still insist on translating everything, thinking that if they don’t learn the exact translation of each structure, they won’t be able to communicate in another language. However, more often than not, they actually know how to express what they want to say. Unfortunately, they don’t even realize that they have multiple options to choose from.

Let’s look at an example: the adjective “busy”. Ifa student forgets it, does that mean they won’t be able to communicate an important piece of information? Not necessarily. Instead of saying “I’m busy Wednesday afternoon”, they can say, for example: ”I have no free time/I don’t have free time / I’m working / I’m at work /I’m working on my project this Wednasday/I already have plans for this Wednesday”. And what if you want to use an idiom you particularly like in your native language? Just translate its meaning, instead of dealing with each word separately. For example if someone tells you “I hope there are no hard feelings” they simply trust that you’re not angry with them. Think if translating each word (“no”, “hard”, “feelings”) separately into your language would work. Most likely, it wouldn’t. You need to approach idioms in your mother tongue in a different way. Think about their meaning, the idea they want to convey and try to find a word or phrase in English that reflects it.

Vocabulary:

It depends on many factors – It depends on many different circumstances, facts.

You can still get your message across – To get a message across means to communicate something effectively, to make someone understand it or believe it.

It’s just not fair towards the former – When we mention two things or people or groups, the first one is described as “the former”, the second one as “the latter”. For instance: “We shouldn’t compare a beginner to an advanced student. It’s not fair towards the former”.

Your self-esteem won’t definitely benefit from it. – Your self-esteem is the way you feel about yourself. It will not improve your self-esteem if you constantly expect too much of yourself.

You are used to something. – You are accustomed to something, it seems normal or usual.

Think about the idea they want to convey. – To convey something means to communicate something. For example, you can convey an idea or a message.

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