How do you translate English words that are difficult to translate?

How do you translate English words that are difficult to translate?

(How do you translate English words that are difficult to translate to other languages?)

As a language coach you always come across some words that are extremely difficult to translate or to give exactly that precise feeling of the word that you really want to give. I came across one of these words the other day — it was “thrilling” — now is that exciting, scary, breathtaking? Here are some of the entries in one thesaurus — amazing, astonishing, awe-inspiring, exciting, hair-raising, heart-stirring, heart-stopping, impressive, magnificent, moving, overwhelming, spine-tingling, stunning — so which would you choose?

Certainly it will always depend on the context and the topic, but in addition and especially with adjectives and descriptive language it will also be a subjective choice of how a word should be interpreted, which can be difficult and even dangerous when speaking in another language as you never can be really sure if the word you have chosen totally fulfils and conveys the meaning, message and emotion that you want it to portray.

I would always ask people who are listening to non-native speakers of a language to be extremely patient and try to go beyond the language that they are hearing to actually feel and sense what the speaker is really wanting to say. I remember years ago having a heated conversation with a Spanish friend regarding the Gulf war. I was living in Spain at the time and in those days had what I would call “OK Spanish” but was unable to really voice my opinion and feelings regarding such an extreme situation. My friend got more and more heated and was so into the topic that he could not realise that I was struggling for the right words and not for the right arguments!!!

How we can get through these moments? Certainly I would say the most difficult language to get across is descriptive language, but in addtion, the more technical the language often the more difficult it is to find exact equivalents. As a lawyer I have also taught legal English and often there just are no equivalents to the terms in English Law comparing them to other legal systems.

Some years ago we were working on a legal dictionary Italian-English and often we had to actually explain the words and terms rather than look for equivalents, as there was just no other way to convey the meaning. Sometimes with technical language, by just explaining the process you can often get to similar meanings or to direct word translations. Sometimes you even find that other  languages actually keep some of the technical words in English 🙂

So, tips to translate English words would be to:

  • Establish what type of language you are dealing with – is it descriptive, is it a verb/action, is it technical ?
  • If technical then which topic/field does it relate to? Then relate to the process or context where the word appears and explain or get the other person to explain and discuss the possible meanings/connotations behind the word
  • Check in a dictionary for multiple meanings. If there are multiple meanings then discuss each meaning in a context giving examples of when the word can be used
  • Always look for synonyms if possible. This can be done with a good thesaurus and a hearty discussion on the different words that appear as similar in meaning. Again talk about the different options and put them all into context and situations which highlight the meaning of each word easily.

On a final note, this reminds me of a language coaching session I had with a really advanced client the other week  – he is German and has a really excellent level of English, but wants to get deeper and deeper into the language. We were sparring over the word “aspect”, because some weeks before I had explained the word as having a visual or appearance-related feeling to it.

He had subsequently found the word in a book and could not get this visual feeling from the word and argued that it really was only a “character or quality”. I totally agreed with this but at the same time tried to give him the feeling that more often than not it is something viewed or regarded and therefore inherently has this visual feeling behind it — in the end I resorted to my faithful friend the dictionary and here is the entry at — I will let you readers decide if my client was satisfied with my reasoning or not:



  1. appearance to the eye or mind; look: the physical aspect of the country.
  2. nature; quality; character: the superficial aspect of the situation.
  3. a way in which a thing may be viewed or regarded; interpretation; view: both aspects of a decision.
  4. part; feature; phase: That is the aspect of the problem that interests me most.
  5. facial expression; countenance: He wore an aspect of gloom. Hers was an aspect of happy optimism.

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