Translating the untranslatable
Updated: Mar 1
Translation describes the process of transfering 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 something like a guide to social reality. It's also created and developed to meet the communicative needs of the society in which it is spoken, hence it reflects the social, historical and cultural reality of each country. Different words are created based on the reality and the challenges each society has to face.
These cultural differences between languages are one of the reasons behind untranslatability.
Untranslatability is the property of text or speech for which no equivalent can be found when translated/interpreted into another language (1). One can describe a word or concept but can't really find an exact equivalent.
In fact, there are some words that don't even make sense in some languages and countries. The legend says that there are more than 50 words describing different kinds of snow in Inuktut aka Inuit (Eskimo language). Even though many people believe that this is just an anecdote, having more than 5-10 words to describe snowy weather would be quite pointless for countries where such weather conditions are 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.
However, it's 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?
At the beginning of this blogpost, I mentioned the difficulty of finding equivalent terms between languages.
Equivalence is one of the core concepts of translation. As translation is not about substituting words from one language to another, equivalence 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.