Is it possible to quantify translation? Is it possible to assess if one text is more difficult than another? Is it possible to claim that one language is more difficult than another language? The whole idea of quantifiability in language and linguistics has often been shunned and thought to be impossible, however, the advent of corpus linguistics and statistical approaches to language has shown us that there is much that statistics can give us. Certain aspects of language are quantifiable and probabilistically-motivated.
A question that is often put by non-linguists is whether one language is more difficult than another. Interestingly, this question is very rarely posited by linguists and sadly has not been taken up by statistical linguistics. Are linguists afraid to ask this question or do they believe it is redundant? Perhaps this question is marked by a form of linguistic political correctness and it is not ‘right’ to ask whether one language is more difficult than another. A ‘better’ question might be how one language differs from another. Yet we are all aware of the fact that some languages are more difficult than others. Obviously, there are a number of factors at play here, such as one’s mother tongue, how many languages one already knows and the relation of the new language to the mother tongue as well as our own individual predisposition for learning languages. But still, with all these factors taken into consideration, certain languages are easier or more difficult than others.
Opinions are varied with Mandarin (Chinese), Arabic, Polish, Basque and Xhosa seen as the most difficult. But when attempting to answer this question we find that it is in fact redundant with there being as many answers as there are people asking the question. Yet where statistical linguistics fears to tread, second language learning boldly goes. It is fascinating that some language teaching institutions have tried to approach this answer quantitatively. The US Military (as well as other US institutions) use a system which divides languages into four groups from I to IV. French, Italian and Dutch can be found within Group I; German in Group II; Polish, Thai and Hebrew in Group III whereas Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean fall into the Group IV bracket. The methodology behind this system is both simple yet extremely practical with languages in each successive group requiring a greater number of teaching hours than those in the preceding group.
It is interesting how practical demands often create the lines of demarcation that linguists (and translators) are often so loathe to draw. The same, of course, can be said of different types of text which the translator faces. Some believe medical or legal texts to be the most difficult, some maintain that poetry is a much more arduous task but in the thick of the translation jungle and within translation agencies the distinction is much less elegant. Initial quotes by translation agencies are often undertaken based on the distinction of general vs. specialised, express vs. non-express translation. It is only when such (theoretical) distinctions are pushed up against the cold, hard truth of practice do these distinctions come good.