The Beauty and Challenge of “Untranslatable” Words

19 10 2016

Every language is a psychological portrait of a culture. Thus the tricky nature of localization from any language to another: exactly what is being implied or missed in the word choices made during translation? Expert language professionals and native speakers are essential to nuanced accuracy.

definition-390785_1920But even professional translators face the challenge of finding equivalents for words that capture a concept in one language, but are not available in a succinct form in another. Idioms and slang reach into the crevices between more conventional ideas, but there are also well-established words that reflect more deeply rooted, unique aspects of the cultures that generated them.

As autumn carries us toward the end of another year, let’s look, for example, at a few words that convey experiences of the human mind in states of transition.

“Saudade” is a Portuguese word that poet/translator Carolyn Forche says describes “a vague and persistent desire for something that cannot be, a time other than the present time, a turning toward the past or future, a sadness and yearning beyond sorrow, the pain which whispers through every happiness.” And yet the book of Portuguese poems by Claribel Alegria that Forche translated, “Saudade”, was entitled “Sorrow” in English. There was apparently no closer, efficient English equivalent than a word that paints only a single aspect of the complex Portuguese word.

The Japanese word, “aware” means “the bittersweetness of a brief and fading moment of transcendent beauty.”*

“Fernweh” is a German word that captures the peculiar sensation of homesickness for a place you have never actually been.

The Korean word, “Won”, refers to the unwillingness of an individual to relinquish an illusion they have.

Vladimir Nabakov defines the Russian word “toska” this way: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

“Lítost” is a Czech word for a state of agony caused by the sudden awareness of one’s own misery.

Discovering these words that pin down rich psychological phenomena, it seems clear that the human translator is indispensable to the process of carrying complex meanings accurately from one culture to another. Skrivanek specializes in sophisticated translation of the most difficult texts and language combinations, and when necessary, we call on subject matter experts for clarification of obscure concepts. Carefully selected translation teams provide the kind of multi-faceted talent and experience capable of resolving even the most troubling language questions.

Please share with us the “untranslatable” words – from English or any other language – that you have come across!

J. McShulskis

*Anjana Iyer, 30 Untranslatable Words from Other Languages (illustrations)

 

 

 

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2 responses

24 10 2016
nsitsanis

I am Greek and also we have many ustranslated words. Yes this is the The Beauty of translation process. THanks

24 10 2016
Nikolaos

Absolutely this is amazing article.

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