The world is full of challenges and people who work with words, like professional translators, do not have an easy life. This is especially true when it comes to polysemic words, that is, those with more than one meaning. That is why translation companies need good professionals who are capable of working out the puzzle that these words can create in a document. Do you want to find out why the translation of these words is such a challenge? Keep reading!

What are polysemous words?

Polysemous words are words with more than one meaning. They are often confused with homonymous words, that also exist in many languages, as professional translators well know, but they are not the same. Polysemous words represent another type of challenge posed by the different languages and create problems when they need translating.

In all languages it is common to find words that have different meanings. This generates quite a serious problem for speakers of that language. So just imagine what it means for language professionals! But don’t worry, everything is under control. Let us tell you about some of the best polysemous words in different languages.

The best polysemous words in different languages

Polysemy in Catalan and Spanish

  • Llenya

We will start with an example from Catalan: llenya. This noun is used for pieces of wood taken from trees and used to make a fire, what is known as firewood in English. However, llenya terrera is also the name given to the bushes that grow between trees, as can be seen here.

These two meanings for llenya can be easily confused, as they could appear in two different texts but on very similar topics.

  • Cap

Cap is also a polysemous word that can refer to a part of the body, a boss or a geographical feature, among other meanings, although in this case it would appear in quite different contexts and could be easily distinguished. Other examples of polysemy in this language are cua, fulla, estació and illa.

  • Cabo

Staying with the subject of geography, we can mention the Spanish example of cabo, which means cape and is also the Spanish word for a certain military rank, the tips of objects and many other things, as we can see here. Spanish people will remember from elementary school the case of araña, an example that was taught year after year in language class. This word can mean a spider, some plants from the Antilles, a type of ceiling lamp (chandelier) and the net used to catch birds. It is one of the most commonly used polysemous words in Spanish, along with gato, cura, banco and carta.

The best polysemous words in English, according to professional translators

  • Bar

From English we also have polysemous words such as bar, which can be used for a bar of soap and is also used for a place mainly dedicated to serving drinks.

  • Bank

Bank is the word used for a river bank and also for the institution we have no choice but to trust with the safekeeping of our money.

  • Smart and pupil

“Smart” can be used to describe someone who is clever or well dressed, and pupilcan refer to a student or to the circular black area in the centre of an eye.

When it comes to the translation of the adjective smart, for example, its exact meaning must be checked beforehand. Both meanings refer to human qualities but to quite different ones, one personality-related and the other more closely related to physical appearance, which are far from being the same.

Scandinavian words that cause confusion

  • Kuusi and kurkuu 

From Scandinavia we have the words kuusi and kurkuu in Finnish. The first is the number six and the name given to a fir tree, while the second simultaneously means neck and cucumber. However, in both cases, the context, which is really helpful in giving professional translators clues to the appropriate meaning, would clear up any doubts about their translation.

One quality of polysemous words is that they help us form puns and they are a good resource for advertisers and, consequently, create quite a challenge for the translation of advertisements or jokes. The following is a classic pun in English: Why did the tomato blush? Because it saw the salad dressing.

While such jokes may make us laugh (or groan!), these words are no laughing matter for translators. Are you brave enough to translate this into another language and tell us how it works out?


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