Why are some words untranslatable?

A question that has been posed to me with some frequency recently is why some things are untranslatable. A good example of this is posts such as this, which has the supposedly untranslatable word alongside—ironically—its translation. But I think that if we ask why certain words can’t be translated, we’re actually asking the wrong question. The right question is: why do we think anything at all can be translated?

Tsunajima Kamekichi, Fashionable melange of English words, 1887 (1)

Why is it that we shy away from trying to translate dépaysement but feel quite strongly that a pomme is the same thing as an apple? While a French speaker and and English speaker would probably use the those respective words to ask for the same piece of fruit from a fruit bowl, the phrase “the apple of my eye” is better tranlsted into French as “prunelle de mes yeux”. And if you asked for the prunelle from a fruit bowl, you’d be given something an English speaker would call a plum. So while we think of these two words as the same, on some level, it cannot be denied that they play different roles in their respective languages. No one claims either “apple” or “pomme” are untranslatable, though.

Well, let’s talk a little about what translation is. In linguistics, the standard when discussing languages that the reader is not familiar with (and, since descriptive linguists often work with languages that have a few dozen speakers, this is not uncommon) is to use three lines. The first is in the original language (usually in the International Phonetic Alphabet), the second line is a morpheme-by-morpheme translation and the third is  a ‘sense translation’, which is how an English speaker might have expressed the same thought. (Morphemes, you may be aware, are the smallest unit of language to contain meaning. So the single word “dogs” has two morphemes. “Dog”, which has the meaning of canis familiaris, and “-s”, which tells us that there’s more than one.)

While we tend to idealize translation as the first, a word-to-word correspondence. But even that’s a bit of a simplification, for you’ll often hear people referring to the “literal” translation of something like an idiom, while the “actual” translation is something that maintains the sense but not the wording. The idea that it’s the sense that translations should capture and not the exact wording can sometimes be taken to extremes. Consider FItzgerald’s “translation” of the The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which in places diverges wildly from the source material. It is true translation, in a morpheme-by-morpheme sense? No. But we still accept it as essentially the same material in two different languages.

And if we accept that on the level of the poem, then I feel like we also have to accept it on the level of the word. It may take more or fewer words to express the same idea in different languages, but if we believe that we’re capable of sharing thoughts between people (Richard Wright once called language  “a very inefficient means of telepathy”) then shuttling them between languages, no matter how difficult the transition, should also be possible. If anything is translatable, than everything has to be.

Of course, accounting for and explaining the cultural baggage associated with a certain term or replicating levels of meaning below the morpheme may pose a greater challenge. But that’s a post for another day.


One thought on “Why are some words untranslatable?

  1. Hi. Just found your blog. love it.
    Relative to this post, the most helpful piece of advice on this topic I’ve ever heard was the quote that
    “Words don’t mean, they evoke”

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