Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Why There's No Such Thing As "Untranslatable"

A lacuna is also a type of hole, as illustrated
in this beautiful picture of shells.
While celebrating the diversity of language is somewhat of a hobby of mine, I am also somewhat irritated by words (often on the internet) that are labelled as "untranslatable". It often seems that most of these untranslatables merely lack a direct linguistic or cultural equivalent, known as a lexical gap or lacuna.

If you throw "untranslatable" into a search engine, you'll be met with plenty of listicles (a portmanteau of "list" and "article", if you were wondering) designed to provide light reading online, generate ad revenue, and provide you with an opportunity to kill some time. Every one of these will give a number of "untranslatable" words along with a description of what they mean.

Translation is often so much more nuanced and complicated than throwing out a word-for-word equivalent and, in the case of these articles, an actual translation appears alongside the words that are supposedly untranslatable!

Depending on your outlook, translation can come in almost any form. You may remember from our "Intro to Translation Studies" posts that scholars Vinay and Darbelnet categorised translation into a number of methods, some of which don't require you to have found an exact equivalent to have translated a term.

It's also important to consider what you need the translation for. If these "untranslatable" words had appeared in a novel, for example, the translator would probably be unable to provide a dictionary-style definition as has been done in these articles. However, while translating them may be difficult, it would not be impossible for the best translators. Sometimes even the best translators cannot find an equivalent term or phrase, and might have to make use of footnotes to explain the term. However, whether you consider this to be a good or bad translation, the word has technically still been translated.

With that all said, most of these lists are very fascinating and I enjoy reading them. I just wish they wouldn't call them "untranslatable"!

What are your favourite hard-to-translate words that don't have a direct equivalent in English? Put them in the comments below and don't forget to provide the translation... if you can!