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Home » Interpretation » Difficult Languages to Simultaneously Interpret – Part II of II

Difficult Languages to Simultaneously Interpret – Part II of II

8th July, 2016 I by Zachary Sheaffer

Simultaneous interpretation is the act of orally interpreting audio with only few seconds of lag time. A strenuous task for any language, four languages in particular that are tough to simultaneously interpret are Arabic, German, Korean, and Navajo. In part two of this blog Korean and Navajo will be discussed. The origins of the Korean language are incredibly obscure and a topic of ongoing debate among many linguistic scholars. The modern Korean writing system, han’gul, was developed in 1443. The Navajo language stems all the way back to around the year 1500 AD, and first appeared in writing around 1850 AD.

Korean

  1. The biggest challenge with interpreting Korean lies in the grammar. Verbs and adjectives can be conjugated in hundreds of ways.
  2. Every Korean sentence must end in either a verb or adjective as well. In Korean, the sentence “I play baseball” would literally translate to “I baseball play.” Moreover, negatives come at the end of sentences in Korean. Sticking with the above example, “I don’t play baseball” would literally translate to “I baseball play don’t.”
  3. There are two different ways to say “I” or “me” in Korean, dependent on if you are speaking formally or informally. 나 is used in informal sentences while 저 is used in formal sentences. This aspect of the language creates even more decisions for the interpreter to make.

Navajo

  1. There is a reason why this fascinating Native American language was used as a code (and never broken by the Japanese) in the Pacific front during World War II. One reason why it is so difficult to comprehend has to do with the fact that it is only spoken by roughly 150,000 people, a dying language as most speakers are shifting to English. The language is also surrounded by a complex culture.
  2. Within the language specifically, Navajo uses no grammatical gender and a free word order concerning subjects, objects, and verbs. The way in which the native speaker organizes the words sheds some light on what words are important within the message they are conveying.
  3. It also has singular, dual, and multiple categories of plural, and they are usually marked on the verb rather than the noun.

What are some languages other languages that are difficult to simultaneously interpret? Do you agree that the examples used above are challenging? Can you provide any tips on interpreting Korean or Navajo?

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You may also be interested in the following:

Ebook: A Resource for Working With Interpreters and Interpretation Equipment

Article: Methods for Practicing Simultaneous Interpretation

Article: The World’s Ten Most Translated Authors

Article: Difficult Languages to Simultaneously Interpret – Part I of II

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6 responses to “Difficult Languages to Simultaneously Interpret – Part II of II”

  1. Xavier says:

    I figured that Navajo was challenging based on its use in World War II but I had no idea it was THAT challenging! It seems impossible to simultaneously interpret. The Korean language structure doesn’t seem too far off from that of German, but there are still some added challenges, notably the conjugation.

    • Zachary Sheaffer says:

      Hi Xavier.

      Thank you for your comment! The Navajo language is incredibly complex. I have done a significant amount of research on the Navajo Code Talkers and the code they developed during World War II. Following WWII, a number of Japanese officers spoke out and admitted that their best cryptographers could not break the code. Many did not even know that the source of the code was the Navajo language until the work of the Navajo Code Talkers became public knowledge many years after the conclusion of WWII.

  2. Siddhi Talati says:

    I think the languages based on Sanskrit have the same issue where the verb comes at the end of the sentence. I interpret for Gujarati, Hindi, and Urdu; which has the similar format.

    • Zachary Sheaffer says:

      Hi Siddhi.

      Thank you for your comment. I am not familiar with Sanskrit languages, however based off of the research I have done your assessment is correct. In most instances the verb will appear at the end of the sentence. I study the Arabic language, so I normally deal with the inverse of that; the verb usually appears at the very beginning of the sentence in Arabic.

  3. Justin says:

    If the question is about which languages are difficult to simultaneously interpret, I think by nature the question has to focus on language pairs, and specifically language pairs where the source/target languages differ substantially in their grammatical structures. Although the Korean language does indeed follow the sentence order and general conjugation rules presented, so does Japanese (as do the Sanskrit-based languages cited above), so simultaneous interpretation between those two languages would be easier in comparison to going from English to either Korean or Japanese. And that would also be true in the reverse, that English would be more difficult to interpret into from either Japanese or Korean than it would be to interpret into from Dutch, for example.

    If the question is purely about which languages are more difficult (or complex) in general to master, then you could cite the usual suspects, which in addition to Korean and Japanese would include Arabic, Mandarin, Polish, Georgian, Hungarian, Thai, Finnish, etc.

    • Zachary Sheaffer says:

      Hi Justin.

      Thank you for your comment. The blog focuses on the language pairs of the language discussed (Korean and Navajo) and English. I agree with the languages you cited as complex. In all of the research that I did to write this blog, those names commonly came up as difficult languages to master.

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