Untranslatable Words – The Challenge

By Ines Swaney

With this column we begin a series on words and phrases—in English and other languages—that pose particular difficulties in translation. The idea for the series was a set of articles on the same theme on the website opendemocracy.net. Long-time NCTA member Ines Swaney gets us started, with an overview of the topic.

When I was asked to contribute an article on the subject of untranslatable words, my first thought was to select a few chosen items from those I’ve been forever gathering, and point out the inherent difficulties in rendering these terms into another language. But then I realized that the level of untranslatability of a given word or expression depends to a large degree on the language pair we are dealing with.

We could take an anglo-centric approach and assume that we are always translating either from or into English. However, we all know professionals who translate or interpret from one language into another without English being part of the picture. For example, a close colleague is quite comfortable working between Spanish and German, in either direction. So it would seem that what becomes challenging when the English language is involved in our work might in other instances not be an issue at all.

Let’s take the simple English word “you.” In Spanish we would need to figure out whether to use the formal or informal version, and also whether it is “you” in the singular or “you” in the plural. I confess that on more than one occasion while communicating in Spanish with individuals also fluent in English, I have made a deliberate switch to English in my conversation, for the sole purpose of not having to decide which Spanish version of “you” I should use: either the “tú” (informal) or the “usted” (formal).

There are some languages, such as Polish or Hungarian, where a phrase as simple as “My cousin got married” becomes untranslatable, unless further information is provided. In both of these languages, the translator or interpreter must first find out whether this cousin was male or female, because the gender will dictate which form of the verb “to marry” should be used.

Then there are situations in which you know exactly how to express the concept in both languages, but subtle nuances and the “politically correct” climate make our translating task almost impossible. A few years ago I made up a phrase that I considered virtually impossible to translate in a way satisfactory to everyone: “The child was raised by a single parent in the inner city.”

To properly translate this into Spanish, one would first need to know, as we learned above, the gender of the child. But beyond that, there’s a difference between calling someone an “unwed mother” or “unwed father” vs. using the more contemporary term “single parent.” Some single parents are divorced, others never married, others widowed. Spanish has no specific word for “parent,” a word that exists only in its plural version. And what is “inner city”? Is it a ghetto, or a slum? Not necessarily so. Is it “downtown”? Nope. So far, the most acceptable rendering of “inner city” that I’ve been able to come up with in Spanish translates back into English as “the guts of the city” or “the innards of the city,” using the same words as would generally describe the internal organs of a human being or animal.

The extremely detailed and thorough McGill Pain Questionnaire contains a long list of words describing every possible nuance and type of pain that one could ever imagine. Originally in English, it now appears to have been translated into quite a few other languages. Nothing seems to match English in brevity. At least in Spanish, many types of pain can only be expressed in lengthy, descriptive terms such as “as if you were being poked,” or “as if you were being pinched.” Just as we’ve become accustomed to dictionary and software reviews, it might be an interesting exercise for readers to find a version of this Questionnaire translated into the language of their choice and provide a critique as to the quality of the work. It should be a challenging experience.

One final thought: it is my hope that I won’t have to translate this article … since it contains so many words that are tough to translate, including the word “challenging” in the preceding paragraph.

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