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  • Writer's pictureartemissakorafa

Translating the untranslatable

Updated: Nov 8, 2023

Translation describes the process of transferring words or text from one language into another. But is it always possible to find the exact equivalent of a word or concept between two languages? Not really. In fact, language professionals are convinced that some words or concepts are merely untranslatable.

When is a word untranslatable?

We already know that language is not just about words. As suggested by Sapir-Whorf, it's can be rather described as a guide to social reality. It's also created and developed to meet the communicative needs of the society in which it is spoken reflecting the social, historical, and cultural reality of each country.

These cultural differences between languages are one of the reasons behind untranslatability.

Untranslatability is the property of a text or any utterance, in one language, for which no equivalent text or utterance can be found in another language when translated (1). In cases of untranslatable words, one can describe a word or concept but finding an exact equivalent is almost impossible.

In fact, there are some words that may not even make sense in some languages and countries. Legend has it that there are more than 50 words describing different kinds of snow in Inuktitut (Inuit, also known as Eskimo language). While this may be just an anecdote, it's still clear that having more than 5-10 words to describe snowy weather in a language would be quite pointless in countries where such weather conditions are rarely or never the case.

Is untranslatability a problem?

Untranslatability is an undeniable reality in the world of linguistics (2). Even though it illustrates the complexity of languages across the world, it may often pose a problem to translators who strive to retain the meaning of the original text when translating it into an other language.

However, untranslatability is usually not perceived as a problem but rather as a positive attribute of languages. As language is a way to express the world around us, differences between languages show exactly how different words reflect the diverse communicative needs in the society in which each language is spoken.

What about the concept of equivalence?

Equivalence is one of the core concepts of translation. It describes the process of decoding the meaning of a word/concept in a source language and then seek a word/concept that carries the same meaning in a target language.

Let's take the German word "der Regen", for instance. There is a full equivalence between the word in English (rain), Spanish (la lluvia) and many more languages. Why? Because this word illustrates a reality all these countries have in common.

Do you feel like checking out some fun examples of untranslatable words from all around the world? Then, you may want to check this out.


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