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The challenges of handling dialects in translation

The challenges of handling dialects in translation
in Language Connect

Language is a barrier to business that translators are always striving to break down to make deals, cross-border activity and a global network more possible than ever before. But language itself is not the only hurdle that skilled translators need to overcome to find success and make materials accessible to a wider audience. There also exists the challenge of dialects.

Whether it’s Arabic, where there are a wide range of different versions spoken across a number of countries in one region of the world, or Spanish, where historical colonies have meant a language being spread across the globe, dialects mean that even though the language is the same at its core, there are distinct differences that affect the understanding of both the spoken and written word.

This is something that’s even evident in English in single countries. In Britain, for example, Welsh, English and Scottish people speak the same language, but with their own individual takes on it. And in the US, it’s even more diverse. According to Business Insider, across the country, there are no less than 22 distinct dialects, all with their own words and phrases that would be nearly incomprehensible to those from other regions.

What is a dialect?

A dialect differs from a language in that it is not, strictly speaking, its own official form of the spoken or written word. Two dialects can both be versions of the same language, but they are different in their own way. Roughly speaking, a dialect is a form of an official language that is limited to a certain social group, region, or even country.

Unlike accents or slang, dialects are not simply changing how certain words are pronounced or used, but tend to bring in their own version of words, or even their own distinct words, that make them different to some degree. It means that even two people speaking Arabic, for example, might not be entirely able to understand each other, because their versions of the language that they know have been dictated by where they have lived and who they were surrounded by.

Why do dialects cause issues in translation?

There are two big challenges that are caused by dialect; finding the right translator, and dealing with a lack of a direct translation.

The first of these is an issue that often occurs when someone speaks a different dialect to the origin language. You might have a translator who speaks perfect Spanish, for example, ready to work on some materials, who later struggles to deal with the job at hand because it originated in a part of Mexico or Argentina where the dialect is different and presents words and phrases they don’t know.

Of course, this can also be true in the other direction. If you are translating into a language like Arabic or Spanish, you don’t just need to consider the dialect in the original materials, but also where and how the finished article is going to be used. It’s important to know who your audience for the translation is before you carry out the task so you know what their understanding of your finished work will be, and can cater to their needs in the right way.

The second challenge that emerges when dealing with dialects is the lack of a direct translation of some words. Dialects based on geographical divisions can often develop their own distinct words over time, which means that even if you have a fluent speaker in two languages, they will struggle to get the text translated directly.

If someone is using words in the original materials that pull from a specific geographic dialect, it can be impossible to find the direct translation into another language. In these cases, the job of the translator becomes more complex. They need to be able to read and understand the meaning and tone of the original piece, and then translate it into the other language as well as they can without losing any of that meaning and tone. It’s a difficult task that requires the input and skills of an expert translator.

Dialect is, without a doubt, one of the single most challenging aspects of any translation process, and if it’s not handled right, it can lead to materials being incorrectly translated, or even losing their meaning and intention. For this reason, it’s vitally important that an expert translator, who can deal with the differences presented by dialect and overcome them, is employed to get the job done in the right way.

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