I started this post after hearing Lingthusiasm’s excellent podcast episode (referred by my colleague and work döppelganger Heidi) on this topic, wrote about 800 words before finishing the podcast and realizing that they said pretty much everything I was going to say but with much more finesse. Anyway, I changed the focus a bit and here it is.
Once in a while you’ll come across a listicle like this that tries to convey some of the majesty of world culture through “untranslatable” words. Notably, no list of this type is ever just a list of words in foreign languages without translations… that would be extremely boring. Instead, they usually have English translations for each word with accompanying explanations for why those translations are inadequate, usually something about the unique piquance of the origin language (henceforth OL) missing or some other woo-woo. Of course, nuance often goes missing when one speaker has less information about a word than another; one could argue that adults talking to children or experts talking to non-experts always results in nuance being lost. This could be why talking to children often has the same feeling as cross-cultural communication. When I explain metal to non-metal fans, I get the feeling that only about 60% of my words are being received with their intended meanings. If I were to make a list of words which are untranslatable from my head to the head of someone who actively listens to Justin Timberlake, it would include “Maidenesque”, “djenteel”, and “filth” (as a good thing).
Not just words in other languages, but all words exist differently in the minds of other speakers – even speakers of the same language. Since all communication is a matter of messages being sent and received by people with different lives and therefore different mental representations of words and worlds, one could argue that all language is untranslatable, if our bar for perfect translation is putting the exact same idea in the listener’s head as was in the speaker’s. For example, for a long time my prototype of a “dog” was a friendly but mischievous toy breed, because I grew up with pugs. Obviously, someone who grew up around Golden Retrievers will have a different idea about typical dog qualities, and someone who grew up in hell will have different ideas from both of us based on their long experience with Chihuahuas. When I used the word “dog” with one of these people, I’m not exactly putting into their minds what is in mine, because our experiences have built different conceptions of “dogs”. Instead of circling off certains words as “untranslatable”, we might do better to call all words “imperfectly translatable”, including among native speakers of the same language. This definition doesn’t respect the commonsense view of “translation” as a matter of crossing linguistic/national boundaries, but it does change the unhelpful “translatable or not” dichotomy into a spectrum of difficulty that includes issues of nuance, grammar, and culturally unique concepts. At one end are unique people who have the same denotation of the word “dog” as referring to a 4-legged furry companion animal but necessarily different personal experiences with dogs, and at the other end citizens of different planets whose languages either are dance-based or feature non-linear conceptions of time, and neither of which has carbon-based life (or by extension, dogs). They would probably write (or dance) some very interesting listicles.
We should also keep in mind that words “not existing in (language)” is a readily fixable problem: when speakers of that language start using those words, then they are words in that language. In that sense, “schadenfreude” is as much a word in English as “skirt” or “scaffold” (although marked for the time being as foreign in origin, while the others have lost that distinction). Lists of foreign words can easily become lists of English words if English speakers pick up on them and start using them – every nam pla is a potential future ketchup, and every ikigai is a possible candidate for kaizen.
Now, you should listen to the podcast episode linked at the top of this post to get some more nuts-and-bolts reasons that translation is difficult, but if you’re interested in why people persist in using the label “untranslatable” for socio-cultural reasons, I think I have a decent taxonomy of reasons below.
Untranslatable due to personal incredulity
You might sometimes hear this boast from someone whose is monolingual and inexplicably proud of it: “We have this beautiful word in my language! No other language has a word like this!” Of course this person has not flown around the world conducting interviews and gathering data in all of the world’s other languages (many not written) and come up empty-handed. He (gratutitous reverse sexism: it’s a he) is simply using this assertion as a conduit for a few ideologies he grew up with, among which is the idea that his language (and probably also his national culture) is unique. Because his culture is unique, everything that flows from it, including the word for “a bundle of flowers”, must also be unique.
Untranslatable due to nationalism
I have often come across words from Japanese that are held out to be “untranslatable” (and then come with translations and explanations that only increase rather than decrease the feeling of distance from them), and interestingly, it happened both when I lived in Japan and now in the US. In both cases, people (Japanese or American) made a performance of struggling to find a proper translation for a supposedly effete and unique Japanese word or expression (onegaishimasu, kimochidake, aidzuchi, you name it). The supposed untranslatability of Japanese into English was, to me, really a nod to the way Japan and the US are represented as certain types of nations in both of their cultures. Both Japanese and Americans are susceptible to the myth that some languages are the original and unique product of internally homogeneous national cultures (while others come from unpleasant “mixing”), and some national cultures are more “pure”, “ancient”, or “deep” than others. Americans see theirs as, at best, a corruption of such a culture in England. Treating the words of a “pure” culture as untranslatable is a show of respect the ways that we have agreed to view national cultures in the modern age.
Untranslatable for social capital
If you, like me, have spent a good deal of time living in another country or speaking another language, you might feel tempted to play this card. Someone asks you how you say X in your other language, and you make a show of listing caveats before and after not really answering their question, being sure to place the blame on impassable linguistic and cultural differences rather than yourself. “What’s ‘dog’ in Japanese?” “Well, most young people in the cities would say that as a noun it’s inu, which I’m pronouncing American-style for your benefit. Oh, but as a bound morpheme it’s ken, which doesn’t really have an equivalent in English, except maybe the Latin cani-, so of course, not in English. Anyway, it’s hard to say there’s a 1-1 relationship between any noun in Japanese and English, the cultures are so different… And did you know that in Japan, dogs fight monkeys, not cats?” A lot of the caché of internationalism is tied up in the seeming to have broken an impossible code. It pays to play up both sides of that: that you have broken it, and that it is impossible to break.
Untranslatable due to the space bar
This is the most nuts-and-bolts entry in this post. It’s no secret that different languages have different transformations that they allow or require words to undertake while still considering them one word, which I have taken to calling agglutination + fusion = agglusion, surely the most uncromulent neologism since Lingthusiasm. Because different languages take different agglusive morphemes, one “word” (stem and morphemes) in the OL will need at least a different set of morphemes in the TL, or as in the case of English, a combination of different words to give the same rough meaning. To take a local example:
“Bailamos” needs at least 2 words (“we dance”) in English to capture the implied subject and the action in that one inflected Spanish verb. In Japanese, it would require an inflected verb and/or the addition of a subject, perhaps 「踊ろう」(the volitional form of “dance”, often used for implied plural first person subjects) or「私たちは踊る」(“we dance”). Despite the mismatches in tense and formality (see this for a brief but helpful explanation), to many people the problem with that English translation is that it has a space in it. There is an ideology that a single word must turn into another single word of the same part of speech for it to be considered a translation; this is a condition more important than any other feature which might be lost or changed. Therefore, “bailamos” has no translation in English because “bailamos” is one word and “we dance” is two (and not because the tenses don’t match up perfectly or anything else). There is no translation of 駄目 (what parents and teachers yell at children who are rubbing spaghetti sauce into the carpet) because there is no single adjective in English which English speakers use in exactly that way, although there are plenty of verbs or multi-word expressions.
Untranslatable because that’s not a word
Certain expressions are barely considered words at all: “Uh huh”, “Well,…” “I was like…”, “etc.”, etc. Some of these rise to the level of recognition as words in other languages, but not in English, or vice versa. Japanese 相づち (backchannels) 「はい」「そうですね」 etc. have existences as words in other contexts, while in English, the most common backchannels are semi-words like “yeah” and “whoa”, which (I haven’t polled most English speakers on this) are less “thingy” as words. When asked to translate one of those backchannels, one might invoke principle that the translation of a word must also be a word and conclude that therefore no translation possible.
I’d like to end this post with one expression from Japanese that I truly do feel is untranslatable: 「っ」。Happy っ to you all!