The challenges in translating Khmer language

Cambodia is a fascinating country. If you think it’s only about Tomb Raider being shot there, you’d be wrong. Apart from the delicacies and tasty foods, there are so many different things to experience there. There are temples which you can reach by tuk tuks. There is a vibrant nightlife in Siem Riep, you can watch elephants take a stroll in Angkor Wat and so much more! As a foreigner travelling to Cambodia, it’s always a sign of respect to learn a few of the local words to help you get by. However, this situation gets a bit complicated when it comes to this special country because of the variety of different dialects and the sheer complexity of the language. That’s why if you want to translate English to Khmer or translate Khmer to English, it can be quite challenging.

Different dialects

As a starting point, the Khmer alphabet consists of 33 consonants and 24 vowels. And while in general writing happens from left to right, there are no spaces between the words, making them hard to distinguish if you’re not a native, and secondly, some of the consonants are placed under each other to create specific and unique sounds.

Apart from having one alphabet, there are so many different dialects of this one Khmer language, which is believed to be spoken by about 16 million people. Wondering about all these dialects?

Here is a brief summary of the most common ones:

Standard Khmer: this is the dialect used around the capital and its surrounds, it is taught in schools, used by the government as an official language and is also used for legal texts.

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Battambang Khmer: this dialect is spoken in the central region and Siem Riep.

Phnom Penh Khmer: the dialect that’s spoken in the capital and its surrounding areas.

Northern Khmer of the Khmer Surin: you will be able to hear this dialect in the Thai province of Surin, Sisaket, Buriram and Roi Et.

Cardmom Khmer, Western Khmer or Chanthaburi Khmer: this is spoken by people in the Cardamoms mountains.

Other dialects include:
translate english to khmer

  • Khmer Krom or Southern Khmer/Vietnamese Khmer
  • Khmer Khe or Kes, which is spoken in the Stung Treng Province
  • Khmer Loeu, primarily spoken in the province of Ratanakiri

With so many different dialects, it is no wonder that translators face so many challenges!

Translation challenges

So, what about the challenges of translating Khmer? If you needed English to Khmer or if you needed to simply translate Khmer – what are some of the obstacles you may encounter? Well, there are several.

Firstly, because of the French influence in the country, the intermingling of French words in the language (apart from all its dialects) means that a translator would not only need to know the correct dialect of Khmer but also be familiar with French and the target language for translation.

Secondly, is the issue of spacing. While English uses a space between each word no matter how short it may be, there is no such distinction in the Khmer language, which has its origins in ancient Indian languages such as Sanskrit.

Thirdly, there’s the issue of tenses and plural forms of nouns. While the rules for these are quite simple and there are no verb tenses or plural nouns in Khmer, this is where it starts getting difficult. This is because there are many complications when it comes to a person’s status in life and how they are addressed. For example, depending on your age, gender, and status, there is no specialized form of “you” in Khmer. Rather, you would need to use the status-appropriate word to describe the person. As such, these differences can’t really be translated into English, making this a further challenge.

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A fourth issue to consider when translating English to Cambodian is related to scientific words that often don’t have a Cambodian equivalent. What often happens in such cases is that “unintended meanings emerge during translation”

Finally, there’s the issue of modifiers. For example, a modifier is placed in front of all cylindrical objects, such as a pencil. However, there is no such equivalent in English and this is therefore often omitted from the translation.


Luckily, with the onset and advancements in technology, translating English to Khmer or Khmer to English has been somewhat eased. This is especially the case as Khmer became the 66th language that can be machine-translated by Google Translate. Although it may not yield perfect results, it’s a step in the right direction to ensuring a smoother process of communication between English and Khmer speakers.