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How to Translate the Untranslatable

How to Translate the Untranslatable

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The art of translating a word or phrase into another language is a beautiful, but complex one. To translate something is to transfer meaning across from one written or verbal form to another.

Indeed, there are very few words of languages that cannot be directly translated, such has been the success of its evolution – but what happens when a word is simply untranslatable?
In this article, we take a look at some of the ways this issue can be tackled, including exactly where to start, with focus on several prime examples.

What is an Untranslatable Word?

Since the formative years of human interaction, translation has played a major role in connecting people of different creeds and cultures. Its significant development over the centuries has contributed greatly to an increased melting pot in society and has been a key feature of globalisation.

As a definition, untranslatability relates to a property of text or speech for which no equivalent can be found, when translated into another language. A piece of text that is deemed to be untranslatable is considered a lacuna, or lexical gap, meaning that there is no perfect literal translation available in another language.
An interesting notion linking untranslatability with national identity was discussed by Alexandra Jaffe, who said: “When translators talk about the untranslatable, they often reinforce the notion that each language has its own “genius”, an essence that “naturally” sets it apart from all other languages and reflects something of the “soul” of its culture or people.”

Top 10 Untranslatable Words

Some words in certain languages cannot be directly translated into a single word, like-for-like, or localized into certain regions, but instead can be explained in terms of meaning and sentiment.

1. Sobremesa (Spain)

This noun refers to the Spanish tradition of sitting round the table and chatting after lunch or dinner, typically for around 30 minutes to one hour. Its literal translation is “upon the table”.

2. Verschlimmbessern (Germany)

A colloquial term which refers to a person attempting to improve something but instead making things worse in the process. It is a fusion of verschlimmern (“to make something worse”) and verbessern (“to make something better”).

3. Abbiocco (Italy)

It is a noun that denotes the sleepy feeling a person experiences after eating a large meal. There are no literal translations, but related meanings include “fit of drowsiness” and “a sleepy desire to lie down after food”.

4. Utepils (Norway)

The term refers to a beer enjoyed and cherished outside in the sunshine, usually in the summer period, as opposed to the long, dark Norwegian winters. The literal translation is “outdoors lager”.

5. Desenrascanço (Portugal)

Considered to be a key Portuguese virtue, it is a noun that describes the ability to improvise quickly in order to problem-solve quickly, using whatever means available. The literal translation is “disentanglement”.

6. Yakamoz (Turkey)

A poetic word that describes the beauty of seeing the moon’s reflection on a piece of water. More specifically, it refers to the bioluminescence, or sparkling light, emitted by sea creatures. The literal translation is “sea sparkle”.

7. Hyggelig (Denmark)

In just one word, this adjective describes a combination of: caring, friendly, safe, and snuggly. There is no literal translation but it shares the same etymology as the British English term “’hug” and means something much deeper emotionally, in Danish.

8. Prozvonit (Czech Republic)

Refers to the act of calling somebody on a mobile phone but only letting it call once, with the aim being that the receiver calls back, therefore saving the caller money. There is no literal translation.

9. Wabi-Sabi (Japan)

Is a profound concept that refers to finding beauty in something that is not perfect in the eyes of others, through accepting the natural cycle of decay and imperfection. There is no literal translation.

10. Jayus (Indonesia)

Is a slang term that is used to describe the feeling experienced when a person delivers a joke so unfunny that it is almost impossible not to laugh at, mainly out of awkwardness. There is no literal translation.

How to Get Around Translation Issues

● Direct Translation

When it comes to attempting to translate certain words into a different language, the first and most straightforward step is to try a literal – or direct – translation. In a process known as formal equivalence, translators will closely follow the words represented in the original language.

The main problem with this method is that the meaning can sometimes be lost, when particular words cannot be translated in a word-for-word manner. For instance, words of cultural untranslatability will lose the nuance of their intended meaning, as they cannot be correctly re-applied in a different country’s language.

● Word Adaptation

Where direct translation is not possible, the next step is to attempt to adapt the word. This can be achieved by using other terms or phrases in the target language to convey an accurate meaning of the origin or source word.

One pitfall of word adaptation is its subjectivity, with translators intervening to apply perceived meaning based on their research or knowledge of similar words. However, it is a good way to work around the issues with direct translation, and it can help to overcome problems of cultural untranslatability.

● Word Creation

Another alternative is to, in essence, borrow words, by taking terms from another language, adjusting the way they are used and adapting them to the grammatical rules of the target language. In some cases, the spelling can be altered to match the word’s pronunciation.

When focusing on the English language, it is clear that there are many borrowed words from other languages, particularly from French and Latin. New terms and phrases are regularly being added to the dictionary, especially as the world becomes increasingly globalised.
Here at Pangea Global, we strive to meet all your translation and localization needs, with our dedicated team of professionals on hand to meet your needs and make your content sparkle. Sounds good? Get in touch here.
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