Our guide for translating Khmer

The last decade has witnessed the incredible growth of Asia, especially the South East area. They are predicted to be the fastest-growing economies in the near future.

Khmer, the major language of Cambodia, may not be in the top most famous languages globally but it is gaining popularity significantly. Now, it is the right time for businesses around the globe to invest in this nation and in fact, there is a great number of international corporations that have set their footstep here. However, starting a business in Cambodia is impossible without a professional Khmer translation. Here are the reasons.

I. The importance of Khmer translation

The word ‘Khmer’ might remind people of the term Khmer Rouge, which was used for the followers of Cambodia’s communist party. However, Khmer is the official language of Cambodia and is named after the Khmer people who make up over 97% of the population. 

There are currently around 22 million people who speak the Cambodian language around the world. They are distributed mainly in Cambodia and across Vietnam, Thailand, Australia, the US, Canada and France. 

Khmer was strongly influenced by the ancient Sanskrit and Pali languages of Hinduism and Buddhism. The Khmer alphabet contains 33 consonants and 24 vowels. 

The most popular dialects of Khmer are:

  • Standard Khmer: used in the capital and surrounding areas, in official legal documents and the language of the government 
  • Battambang Khmer: used in the central region and Siem Riep.
  • Phnom Penh Khmer: used in the capital and its surrounding areas.
  • Northern Khmer of the Khmer Surin: used in several Thai provinces of Surin, Sisaket, Buriram and Roi Et.
  • Cardamom Khmer, Western Khmer or Chanthaburi Khmer: used in the Cardamoms mountains

Khmer language is not tonal and the written form is called Khmer script, which was derived from Sanskrit. Although there are a great number of Khmer speakers in the nation, only 79% of the population can actually read the language. 

II. 5 problems when translating Khmer

1. Loanwords from French

In the 20th century, three nations: Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, or ‘the Indochine’, became French colonies in almost 100 years. As a result, French culture and language tremendously influenced the local people and lasted until today.

Therefore, the intermingling of French words in Khmer requires the professional translators not only master a variety of the Khmer dialects but also have a certain knowledge of French language and culture. 

2. No spacing

Just like Thai language, there is the issue of spacing which may have Khmer translators horrified. It is because of the origin in ancient Indian languages such as Sanskrit. On top of that, there is no such thing as capital letters which makes the language seem to be more challenging, even for an expert.

3. Tense and plural forms 

Although the rules are simple because there are no tenses or plural nouns, it can cause misunderstanding when it comes to translating from Khmer to a language with high accuracy such as English and German. Translators can only guess the tense by particles and adverbs or through context. 

On the other hand, unlike in English you just have the word ‘you’, in Khmer you have to base on one’s status such as age, perceived status, levels of intimacy to choose words to address and describe them. The pronominal system is so complicated due to many honorific variations that risk your brand reputation when things go wrong. Moreover, this unique characteristic of Khmer can’t really be translated into English, making this a further challenge.

4. Scientific vocabulary

Another issue when translating to Khmer is that there are a lot of scientific words that don’t have an equivalent in this language. Some experts explain that because the country has not developed as other Western ones, it is understandable when its language lacks many scientific terms.

5. Usage in Khmer language is based on social rank

This characteristic of Khmer is similar to its cousin, Thai language. Each register goes with  a different set of verbs, names of body parts, and pronouns.

For instance, these words which all mean “to eat” across five social registers:

  • between intimates or in reference to animals: sii
  • reference to commoners: ɲam
  • reference to higher social status: pisa or tɔtuəl tiən
  • reference to monks: cʰan
  • reference to royalty: saoj

Khmer is a hard language to learn and a challenge to language services providers. A thorough understanding of Khmer culture and history, as well as the language, is required for successful Thai translators.

If you need to translate into Khmer, give us a call today!

Facts about Khmer language

  • Khmer is considered to be a Category II language in terms of difficulty for speakers of English.
  • Khmer does not have a passive voice
  • Counting is based on a biquinary system (the numbers from 6 to 9 are counted as “five one”, “five two”, etc.) 
  • The words for multiples of ten from 30 to 90 are probably borrowed from Thai.