Global Issues Open Translation Project

Which TED Talks were the hardest to translate?

Posted by: Katja Tongucer


With the help of more than 8,000 volunteer translators, TED Talks have been subtitled and translated into more than 90 languages. But the translators of TED’s Open Translation Project sometimes face difficulties while trying to find the right expression in their language.

I put the question to my fellow translators: What talk did you have a hard time translating? Sometimes, these talks were hard to translate because the speaker talked quickly, or used long and meandering sentences. Sometimes it was difficult because their talk was in an unusual form — like comedy, song or poetry. Other times, it proved hard to replicate a very literary or scientific speech. And sometimes, these talks simply contained distinctive scientific or cultural terms that needed a lot of research.

That said, when you pick a talk to translate, you feel a connection to it. And so, as translators, we power through. Below, here are some of the talks that OTP translators noted as especially difficult to translate, but completely worth the hard work.

Ben Goldacre: Battling bad scienceBen Goldacre: Battling bad scienceThe talk: Ben Goldacre: Battling bad science
The challenge: At TEDGlobal 2011, Ben Goldacre was approached by a group of translators who had listened to the talk he had given earlier that day. He was just a little bit surprised when they told him: “We loved your talk — it’s entertaining and interesting and it was a great presentation. But you talked so fast, it will be a real challenge for translators.”
Now available in: 37 languages
Ze Frank: Nerdcore comedyZe Frank: Nerdcore comedyThe talk: Ze Frank’s nerdcore comedy
The challenge: Polish translator Kinga Skorupska explains why she struggled with Ze Frank’s TED Talk: “He’s talking and at the same time showing slides, and the clash between what we see and what he says makes it funny, but really awkward to translate. I am still not happy with the final result.”
Now available in: 22 languages
Erin McKean: The joy of lexicographyErin McKean: The joy of lexicographyThe talk: Erin Mckean: The joy of lexicography
The challenge: It seems surprising that many of the talks that are difficult to translate are about language. Erin McKean’s is a good example. “It was difficult but at the same time so rewarding for translators because it addressed the beauty of working with the language and how creative you have to be,” says Magda Rittenhouse, another translator from Poland.
Now available in: 28 languages
Regina Dugan: From mach-20 glider to hummingbird droneRegina Dugan: From mach-20 glider to hummingbird droneThe talk: Regina Dugan: From mach-20 glider to humming bird drone
The challenge: For Persian translator Soheila Jafari, Regina Dugan’s talk is one of the most challenging talks she has worked on so far. It’s a perfect example of a talk with specialized and unusual terminology. To find the correct words, Jafari did a lot of research in several different fields of science.
Now available in: 16 languages
Imogen Heap: "Wait It Out"Imogen Heap: "Wait It Out"The talk: Imogen Heap plays “Wait It Out”
The challenge: The “E” in TED — Entertainment — can be either a nice gift or a real challenge for translators. Writes translator Katarina Smetko, from Croatia, “For me, translating any kind of poetry or song lyrics is tough … It’s very hard to do this properly without being a bit of a poet yourself — something that I certainly don’t flatter myself to be. That doesn’t mean I haven’t tried, though.”
Now available in: 26 languages
C.K. Williams: Poetry of youth and ageC.K. Williams: Poetry of youth and ageThe talk: C.K. Williams’ poetry of youth and age
The challenge: Translating poetry is a difficult genre — and especially intimidating if the poet has won nearly every award out there, from the National Book Critics Circle Award to the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
Now available in: 18 languages
Virginia Postrel: On glamourVirginia Postrel: On glamourThe talk: Virginia Postrel on glamour
The challenge: Have you ever tried to find four different words for “glamour” in your language? When a talk is focused on a specific concept, and one that is very culture-specific, translating can turn into a fiddly business.
Now available in: 19 languages

This post was written by Katja Tongucer, who translates TED Talks into German. She is passionate about finding the appropriate word and believes that living abroad should be a basic part of anyone’s education.

Comments (4)

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  • commented on Jan 21 2013

    Reblogged this on Digital cultures and translation and commented:
    Interesting insights into the difficulties and the nature of the translators volunteering their times and skills to get the TED message across borders.

  • Mariela Rodio commented on Jan 21 2013

    Great post! I remember that among the translations in which I contributed, the one that was very challenging was also Ben Goldacre: Battling bad science. The challenge there was mainly the rate of speech of the speaker, that gave a lot of information in very little time, which I assume it must have also been a challenge for whoever transcribed the talk.

    At least for Spanish translators, one of the most challenging tasks is to be able fit the expanded text in Spanish to the allocated time in English, without writing a 3 line subtitle.

    And then, obviously, it is quite hard to translate talks with a lot of metaphors or word play on them, or language related jokes, because then you really need to localize the translation, and with such a large Spanish speaking community, with different language flavors, it becomes quite hard to translate into something that is understandable or funny to everyone.

    Luckily, the interaction with other volunteers in the OTP community, helps you overcome these barriers, or even the extra research you need to do, to replicate a talk, is quite enriching.

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