The Friday Fillip: Untranslatable

Every so often you’ll see an article that declares that word x in language y is untranslatable into language z — this last almost always being English. The truth of it is that most of these statements are simply wrong and often show themselves to be wrong as they proceed to tell you what word x means in English. It is the case, of course, that we don’t always have a single word in English that serves the same function as the single word in the exotic language, so sometimes it takes us a few words to express pretty much the same thing. And, as someone nearly said, “What’s in a word?” I’d guess that if we didn’t have writing — and that with spaces between “words” (as in scriptio continua, for example) — we’d be a lot less clear about what sound cluster made up a discrete word, as anyone who’s learned expressions in a foreign language without reading them could attest.

Still, there’s no doubt whatever that translation between languages is vexed, something we who work in a bijural-bilingual system should know full well. And everyone wants to be unique — incomparable, in effect — whether it’s in the the stubbornness of their language or some other aspect of their lives. Which gives us a clue.

What’s hidden in a reductive statement such as “x has no word for y”, is context, that which gives utterance meaning; and when we come to languages, one critical context is an entire culture, a sort of massive “you had to be (born) there” explanation for why you don’t get it. This came home to me again the other day when a friend of mine tweeted about his young child’s wicked glee in flirting with variations on a really “bad” word, which, in this case, all started with “taber-“. Out of respect for my other -jural and -lingual culture, I won’t finish the word. But the fact is that for me the word has zero power, and even when I know that it means “tabernacle” in English it lacks any kick whatever. Swear words are like that: untranslatable. The Germans have little hesitation in using their word for excrement, whereas we here might decline to utter our translation in any version of “polite” society. And I remember well that in grade 9 an exchange student from Finland vouchsafed to me the worst swear word in Finnish, made even worser if you rolled your ‘r’s: perkele. There: with apologies to our Finnish readers, I’ve gone and said it. However, not until I started thinking about this fillip did I bother to learn how evil the bad word was. (Too much fun saying it to myself at critical moments and imagining much scandal.) Turns out it was once the name of the god of thunder and then was taken as the Christian name for the devil. Yawn.

If even so you’re interested in a brief survey of the untranslatables, you might take a look at this NPR review of a book by Christopher Moore. Just be prepared for nonsense such as “Arabic has no word for compromise.” There is, however, a word in an African language, Tshiluba, that apparently means: “a person who is ready to forgive any transgression a first time and then to tolerate it for a second time, but never for a third time,” which pretty much makes the visit worthwhile. (My translation: “umpire” as in “three strikes you’re out”?)

More fun, perhaps, is Maptia‘s array of untranslatables, because each definition is given graphically. The use of another medium is a way to transport cultural significance in a single gestalt, and it would have been interesting to see a source language speaker’s depiction of these expressions.

Music can be that “other medium,” to amplify and explain a notion — certainly when that notion, and word, is the Portuguese “saudade.” It’s most often explained as something like “the feeling of missing something you love while knowing that the likelihood of its return is unknowable and entirely left to fate.” Me, I’d say it’s close to nostalgia for something that never really was. Whatever the verbal explanation, the musical express is found in fado. Here’s the magnificent Mariza defining saudade for you:

And if that translation is not entirely clear to you, here’s another try by Mariza: httpa://

Comments are closed.