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Is there such a thing as untranslatable words?

Are there untranslatable words?

There’s no such thing as an untranslatable word. There, I’ve said it. Despite all the memes, blogs, and books to the contrary, all language is inherently translatable. However, whether the broader meaning of a text – the jokes, philosophies, and cultural peculiarities of its language – is translatable depends almost entirely on the individual with their nose in the dictionary (not to mention the dictionary itself).    

When we say that a word is untranslatable, we tend to mean that it lacks an exact or word-for-word equivalent in our own language. In our desire to make everyone and everything understood, we sometimes forget that languages are living, writhing beasts: they evolve and mutate at such a rate that their genetic make-up is by nature very different, and it is almost impossible to pin them down. Although we can spot many commonalities between languages (just ask a friendly polyglot), there are also countless words that resist comparison. We are attracted to these outliers because they seem to fill the gaps in our own language and – if they originate from lands that are unfamiliar to us – they appear to unlock the secrets of other, distant cultures.

Nesting-doll words in Russian

As far as languages lacking like-for-like English equivalents go, Russian is as rich as any. It is a real matrioshka (матрёшка) language, formed by wrapping prefixes and suffixes around a small but solid core. Unpacking the meaning of these nesting-doll nouns and verbs is – like much of Russian – satisfyingly logical (although try telling that to a learner who’s grappling with irregular genitive plurals).

Propit’ (пропить) – meaning ‘to squander on drink’ – combines the verb ‘to drink’ with the prefix pro-, often added to root words in order to indicate loss or failure (just look at proigrat’, or проиграть: ‘to lose a game’). In some contexts we might translate propit’ as ‘drink away’ – for example, on propil zarplatu (он пропил зарплату) becomes ‘he drank away his salary’. In English we can drink away our money, our savings, or our fortune (and perhaps even all three), but our language doesn’t afford us the same flexibility – or economy – as propit’. In two words – propil kvartiru (пропил квартиру, lit. drank away the flat) – a Russian speaker can explain that his acquaintance ‘sold his flat and spent his profit on alcohol’.

One word, many meanings

It’s unfortunate that some of Russian’s most interesting words are also its most depressing. Toska (тоска) is melancholy, anguish, boredom, ennui, yearning, and nostalgia in two short syllables: it’s the pits. Toska makes the cut because although it has multiple possible translations, there is no one English word that manages to convey this sense of pining, misery, and gut-wrenching sorrow. In Russian literature and philosophy, toska is a loaded noun that is often used to describe the Russian condition – although if you’re planning an extended trip to Yakutsk, you’re perhaps more likely to use it in the phrase toska po rodine (тоска по родине), or homesickness.

Considering these two brief examples, it’s easy to see how inferences stemming from so-called ‘untranslatable’ words could be damaging to a culture’s reputation. Happily, there’s much more to Russian than toska and propit’ – and the mere existence of these words says very little about the frequency with which Russian speakers are likely to drown their sorrows around the kitchen table.

Falling leaves

Despite being the language of a nation famed for its snow, Russian is the keeper of one of the most satisfying autumnal words I know: listopad (листопад), meaning ‘the falling of the leaves.’ Listopad – like snegopad (снегопад, meaning snowfall)  – takes its root from the verb padat’ (падать, or fall), and combines it with the noun list’ (лист, leaf) to create a word that for some reason has no commonly used English equivalent. Yes, we have the delightful defoliation in our vocabulary, but it is more formal in register and is used much less frequently. New England may be famed for its foliage, but we rarely talk about its defoliation, whereas legendary Soviet (and now Russian) pop singer Alla Pugacheva has even released a song called Ostorozhno, listopad! (Осторожно, листопад!) – perhaps best translated as ‘Watch out, falling leaves!’ The compound noun leaf-fall does also exist in English (as discovered when researching for this article), but is rarely used in everyday English, and certainly doesn’t feature in the title of a pop song.

Wide open spaces

If New England could do with listopad, then perhaps the American Midwest might benefit from the word prostor (простор), meaning spaciousness, space, and freedom. Prostor goes hand-in-hand with the wild, limitless expanses of the Russian steppe – usually in the phrase stepnye prostory (степные просторы), which means exactly that. However, prostor isn’t just about space: it could also be used in a phrase like emu v derevne prostor (ему в деревне простор), meaning ‘in the countryside, he has the freedom to roam’.

Our increasingly connected lifestyles give us more and more opportunities to explore the vast prostor of other languages. Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) famously said that ‘the limits of my language are the limits of my world’, and every now and then a popular blog or meme might make us wonder if the grass really is greener on the other side. Do we have all the words we need? As far as languages are concerned, I know that I’ll never be an odnoliub (однолюб): someone who only has one love in his or her life, or someone who is only capable of loving one at a time. What about you?

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