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Lost in Translation: Idioms and Inclusivity in Assessments 

22 Jun 2022

Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.”

Anthony Burgess

The task of creating fair and inclusive assessment options for candidates is one littered with challenges, many of which stem from language barriers. Whether it’s exams that are published in limited language options or poorly written tests that don’t account for non-native speakers, the art of inclusion within the world of assessments is both difficult and essential to get right. 

But what are these language barriers, and how do they challenge inclusivity? 


Incomparable Idioms 

“Idioms can be considered as a part of everyday language. They are the essence of any language and the most problematic part to handle with. Not all idioms have direct equivalents in another language, because they are linguistic expressions which are typical for a language and specific to a single culture. It is impossible to define any unique approach in the translating process since so many idioms are culturally specific and thus the  pragmatic meaning  must  be much  more prized  than  the literal  meaning.” – Translation of Idioms: A Hard Task for the Translator 


Idioms are linguistic quirks specific to cultures and very often abstract in nature. Consider common English idioms such as “a different kettle of fish” or “throw a spanner in the works”. The meaning of these phrases, while having a typically long-forgotten etymological meaning that’s rooted in reality, is purely abstract.

They are used in a wide variety of contexts that more often than not have nothing to do with either fish, kettles, or spanners, and yet a direct translation does not account for that, leaving a non-native speaker of—in this case—English, at a loss. For this reason, it’s always best to refrain from turns of phrase when creating assessment material apart from those instances where it might be relevant, e.g., an English exam.

Complex Sentences

Whether it’s using compound words, complex sentence structures, or abbreviations, the way you build an exam or test question can make or break how accessible it is to a reader. To be inclusive is to make as little room for misunderstanding as possible, and to do that often means reducing language down to its simplest form. Short sentences and simple language are big parts of this and mean that any resulting translations are much more accurate than they might otherwise be.

Nuance, Irony and Sarcasm

To be fairer to those who are non-native speakers of a language, there are some key rules that are essential when it comes to question creation. One of those rules is to avoid language nuances such as sarcasm and irony. The reason is that even those reading copy in their native language can sometimes mistake its intention. Both of these linguistic nuances rely heavily on tone of voice during spoken communication, and without clear visual signposts like italics, they can be entirely missed in written communication. As such, it’s even harder for a non-native speaker to pick up on these nuances, and thus it’s much fairer to omit these types of nuances altogether.  

The Polysemy Problem

“Polysemy is the association of one word with two or more distinct meanings, and a polyseme is a word or phrase with multiple meanings.”– ThoughtCo, 2019 

Polysemy is a tricky aspect for non-native speakers as it requires a multi-faceted understanding of one word in many contexts. For example, the sentence ‘the dog is, naturally, hungry’ in English has two meanings, 1) that the dog is, by its nature, always hungry or 2) that, as expected, the dog is once again hungry. It’s a linguistic trick often used by advertisers as it allows for multiple messages to be sent via one short snappy line. For assessments, however, it can very easily create room for misunderstanding and so it’s always advisable to consider this when writing questions.  

Double Negatives


Double negatives can add an extra layer of unnecessary confusion to an otherwise simple sentence. For example, ‘I don’t not want to take the exam’ is much more convoluted than if we remove the double negative: ‘I want to take the exam’.

For those who aren’t fluent in a language or have a reading level that’s misaligned with the complexity of this sentence, a translation still won’t help them understand the meaning.  As such, double negatives are always best removed from any writing, but especially in assessments.

Decoding Jargon and Slang

Typically, more localized to small areas and industries, jargon—a linguistic pattern that’s all too common in business settings—and slang, are both quirks of language that can fall flat on being translated. While ‘blue sky thinking’ is a term many would understand, for others, a direct translation would remain unhelpful, as while the words are simple, they bear no relation to the meaning.

Concluding Thoughts

At Questionmark, we believe education is a human right and that inclusivity should be considered in every assessment or test created. When it comes to solving some of the above language barriers and making assessments more accessible for non-native speakers, the answer lies in creating simple, clear, and concise questions. With simple language, not only is there less room for misunderstanding for a reader, but it also makes translations for non-native speakers much more valuable as they can take them ‘at face value’.

To that end, Questionmark recently created the award-winning Instant Translate tool, the on-screen and instantaneous translation tool for non-native speakers. With Instant Translate and clear questions, we hope to make more assessments accessible and inclusive to a wider audience.

Take a look at our website for a full rundown of Instant Translate, or download our handy infographic for an at-a-glance overview of the power of instant translations for non-native speakers.

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