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untranslatable

Translatable vs untranslatable

In a guest blog post, and following on from her article about ‘untranslatable’ Russian words, Caroline James questions the idea that some words are simply untranslatable.

For most language learners and lovers, translation is a hot topic. Should I translate new vocabulary into my first language? How can I say x in Japanese? Is this translated novel as good as the original? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told that Pushkin isn’t Pushkin unless he’s read in Russian, and I have definitely chastised my own students for anxiously writing out lengthy bilingual wordlists: Paola, you’ll only remember trifle if you learn it in context! 

Context-based learning aside, I’m all for translation: without it, we wouldn’t understand each other. However, I remain unconvinced that untranslatable words really exist. In fact, I wrote a blog post on some of my favourite Russian words that touched on this very topic. Looking at the responses it received both here and in the Twitterverse, I decided to set out on my own linguistic odyssey: could I wrap my head around ‘untranslatable’ once and for all?

It’s all Greek to me!

Many lovely people of the internet are in accordance: untranslatable words are out there, and they’re fascinating. A quick Google brings up articles , listicles, and even entire blogs on the matter. Goya, jayus, dépaysement – all wonderful words that neatly convey familiar concepts, but also ‘untranslatable’ words that appear accompanied by an English definition. This English definition may well be longer and more complex than the foreign-language word itself (Oxford translates dépaysement as both ‘change of scenery’ and ‘disorientation’, for example), but it is arguably a translation nonetheless. A lot of the coffee-break reads popping up on the internet don’t contain untranslatable words, but rather language lacking a word-for-word English equivalent. Is a translation only a translation if it is eloquent and succinct?

Translation vs definition

When moving from one language to another, what’s a translation and what’s a definition – and is there a difference? Brevity seems to matter: the longer the translation, the more likely it is to be considered a definition. Does this make it any less of a translation? When we translate, we ‘express sense’; when we define, we ‘state or describe exactly the nature, scope, or meaning’. If I say that toska (Russian) means misery, boredom, yearning, and anguish, is that a definition or a translation? Or even both? It is arguably a definition – yet all of the nouns above could, dependent on context, be used as the best translation.

If we are to talk about what is translatable and what isn’t, we need to start talking about language, rather than words. The Spanish word duende often features in lists of untranslatable words: it refers to the mystical power by which an artist or artwork captivates its audience. Have I just defined duende, or translated it? I for one am not so sure anymore, but I do know that in context, its meaning is clear: un cantante que tiene duende becomes ‘a singer who has a certain magic about him.’ The same goes for the French word dépaysement. By itself, dépaysement can mean many things, but in the phrase les touristes anglais recherchent le dépaysement dans les voyages dans les îles tropicales, it’s clear from context that the sense required is ‘change of scene’ (‘English tourists look for a change of scene on holidays to tropical islands’). Does this mean that all words are translatable, as long they are in context?      

Saying no to stereotypes

One of my biggest beefs with untranslatable word memes is the suggestion that these linguistic treasure troves are loaded with cultural inferences. Most of the time they’re twee, rather than offensive: for example, the German word Waldeinsamkeit means ‘the feeling of being alone in the woods.’ Gosh, how typical of those woodland-loving Germans, wandering around the Black Forest enjoying oneness with nature! The existence of an ‘untranslatable’ word hints at some kind of cultural mystery that is beyond our comprehension – but does the lack of a word-for-word translation of Waldeinsamskeit mean that no English speaker (or French speaker, or Mandarin speaker) can understand the concept of being alone in the woods? Of course not! However, these misinterpretations of Waldeinsamskeit, Schadenfreude, Backpfeifengesicht et al. make me think: what about those words that really do have a particular cultural resonance? Can we really translate them?

Excuse me, can I borrow your word?

Specialized translation throws up its own variety of ‘untranslatable’ words. For example, if you are translating a text about the Russian banya into a language where steam baths are not the norm, how do you go about translating nouns such as venik (веник)? A venik is a broom, but in the context of the banya it is a collection of leafy twigs (rather than dried twigs) that is used to beat those enjoying the restorative steam. Translating venik as ‘broom’ here would be wildly inaccurate (and probably generate some amusing mental images). The existence of a word-for-word translation doesn’t provide the whole answer if cultural context is missing. We can find examples of ‘untranslatable’ words in relation to almost any culture-specific event, be it American Thanksgiving, Spanish bullfighting, or Balinese Nyepi. If I were to translate an article about bullfighting and retain tienta rather than use ‘trial’ (significantly less specific), does that mean that tienta in this context is really untranslatable?

So what has all this research taught me about translation? Individual words may not be translatable, but language is. And as for the accuracy of the translation? That often depends on how we, as speakers of a particular language, attribute our own meaning. Sometimes, the ‘translation’ just has to be Schadenfreude.

What do you think? Are some words untranslatable? Share your thoughts in the ‘translation and language-learning’ board of the Oxford Dictionaries Community.

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