Problems in Translation: Dialects

Problems in Translation: Dialects

One of the most frequent misunderstandings about translation in general is that a language is simple and straightforward. More often than not, a client comes to a translator requesting something along the lines of, “I need this translated into Spanish.” However, the translator’s first question should always be, “Which Spanish?” Languages vary widely among the regions where they are spoken as well as among the speakers who speak them. Different groups of speakers in different areas may speak the same language, but the differences between their dialects can sometimes render a translation nearly unintelligible to another group of speakers.

Dialects are common in English as well. One of the most common misconceptions is that English is somehow immune to the dialectal and regional variations that are inherent to other languages across the globe. Not so. Check out the following words and their varying definitions between American and British English for a quick example:


  • UK: Another word for a jewelry box
  • US: Another word for coffin


  • UK: A gang member or tough guy
  • US: An old man


  • UK: Used to describe a comfortable, cozy house
  • US: Used to describe someone who is plain or ugly


  • UK: Underwear
  • US: Trousers

The first floor

  • UK: The floor above the ground floor
  • US: The ground floor


As evidenced by the variations highlighted above, care must be taken during translation that the appropriate dialect or regional variation is used so that the readers will understand the translated material. As a client, always make sure to let the translator know where the translation will be distributed, and as a translator, take care that the region and dialect are stated explicitly as part of the translation contract before work begins.

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