Is Anything Untranslatable?

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Language experts argued about the idea of untranslatable phrases at an October 20, 2014 discussion about philosopher and editor Barbara Cassin’s book Dictionary of Untranslatables at the Institute of Public Knowledge. A report in the Washington Square News, New York University’s independent daily student newspaper, said Rutgers professor Rebecca Walkowitz caused a flurry of conflicting opinions when she asked the language experts about the concept of untranslatable words and phrases.

Words Perhaps Untranslatable But Meaning Not So?

“I don’t believe anything is untranslatable,” said David Bellos, the director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University. “What people get fixated about, which is really just a diversion — a completely unnecessary complication — is the translation of words. Words as such, of course, are totally untranslatable. You can’t translate ‘of,’ it’s what it is that’s communicated by that act of speech or writing.”

Dictionary of Untranslatables is an encyclopedic dictionary of close to 400 important philosophical, literary, and political terms and concepts that defy easy–or any–translation from one language and culture to another. The 1,300+ page book covers terms from more than a dozen languages including German, Russian, Portuguese, and Italian. The author examines each term in all its cross-linguistic and cross-cultural complexities.

No Right Or Wrong Answer

Contrary to Dictionary, some translation and interpretation experts think terms are neither exclusively translatable nor exclusively untranslatable. This group believes that the degree of difficulty in translation depends on the nature of the work and the translator’s knowledge of the languages in question.

A text or utterance that’s considered untranslatable may just be what’s called a lacuna or a gap in the language. Sometimes there’s no one-to-one equivalence between a word, expression, or turn of phrase in the source language and another word, expression, or turn of phrase in the target language. Still, professional translators have methods of converting those words and expressions into something comparable in the second language.

Denotation Easier To Translate Than Connotation

Denotation (the literal meaning of a word) can virtually always be translated. Connotation (the idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literal meaning) is much more difficult to carry over from one language to another.

Professional translators are aware of the sometimes huge differences between a word’s denotative and connotative meanings. Some words have a harmless denotation, but once placed in a different context, the new connotation can be damning. For example, the English word slimy by itself can accurately describe a slug, a cluster of algae, or the feeling on your face after your dog give you a wet and moist welcome home. However, when you use slimy to describe a person, the professional translator recognizes that this person is not someone to trust.

In some languages, certian words are so culture-bound that they’re difficult to translate. There are entire blogs devoted to untranslatable words. Many times the difficulty is in translating the state of mind or emotion behind the word.

To Not Translate Is A Dereliction Of Translator Duty

Lucy Greaves, the translator in residence at London’s Free Word Centre, says she’s uncomfortable with accepting any word or phrase as being untranslatable. To not translate a word would be a dereliction of the translator’s duty according to Lucy.

She goes on to say, “When confronted with a word that doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English, there are several strategies I can use to deal with it. I can go for the word, or phrase, that I believe has the closest meaning to the original. I might choose to include the foreign word in italics and either trust that there is enough contextual information for my readers to work out what it means, or sneak in a short explanatory phrase (I try to avoid using footnotes because they interrupt the flow of the text). Sometimes there’s even a case to be made for inventing a new word in English to fill the gap highlighted by the foreign concept.”

But what do you think? Are some words, phrases, or ideas untranslatable? How do we best translate when a concept that’s familiar in one culture doesn’t seem to make any sense in another culture? Send us your thoughts.


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