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Untranslatable? There is no such thing as an untranslatable word! At least that is what the principle of effability states. According to this principle, anything meaningful that can be said in one language can be understood by another person and expressed in a different language in such a way that a third person can also understand it. That is the general principle.

Others say that if something cannot be translated then it is not worth translating anyway. I found this point of view expressed by a self-proclaimed maverick-philosopher on his blog. The statement struck me as highly ironic when I realized that the word maverick itself is not easily translatable. At least not into Spanish. Some Germans use it but pronounce it in English or put it in italics when writing. Of course, it could well be that the maverick-philosopher is right and that there is no point in translating his musings into another language. But I disagree with that idea: What I would rather plea for in this blog is that words that cannot yet be translated into another language should be adopted by or at least adapted into the language that lacks the means to express that thought. I claim that in this way the language will be enriched, their speakers will gain a new insight, a new perspective into the world.

For the purposes of this blog an untranslatable word shall be a word that expresses an idea or concept in one language, an idea or concept that is, feels and sounds completely natural in that language, but that is only conveyable with great difficulty and lack of elegance into another language. The word in question should ideally be evident to the speakers of the first language but difficult to express in the second. This difficulty can be due to several reasons:

  • Historical reasons: Like in the maverick example. Mr. Maverick was an historical figure who lived in Texas, USA. He gave the term maverick its current meaning when he refused to mark his cattle, so mavericks were originally just unbranded cattle. The word evolved to mean a person who exhibits a streak of stubborn independence. German and Spanish don’t have a term to express this concept with elegance, which doesn’t mean there are no such persons in Germany or Spain (or Latin America, for that matter). It is only more cumbersome to describe them.

  • Morphological-semantical reasons: The German language has plenty of instances in which this applies. This is due to the possibility of chaining words one after the other, thus changing the meaning of the whole series. Like in Trittbrettfahrer, Steigbügelhalter, Galgenhumor, Rabenmutter, or  tiefstapeln, all of which are hard to translate into Spanish or English, or sometimes both. The terms will be explained later.

  • Purely semantical reasons: Some words seem to not have an equivalent term in other languages, like the English word hatching. It is usually translated as Schraffur into German, which is alright, but as sombreado into Spanish, which seems to me not to be, because sombreado means shaded, which includes grey tones, and not just parallel lines. And that is not for lack of hatching in Goya’s etchings, or in technical drawings, especially in cross-sections, or in bank notes. But still the Spaniards don’t seem to have this distinct word for thin, parallel lines.

  • Grammatical reasons: Some grammatical constructions are feasible in one language but not in others. The English language does not know grammatical gender, so it becomes impossible to say nosotros y nosotras, like a very politically correct Spanish politician once expressed himself. German, on the other hand, has even three grammatical genders, der, die and das, but, strictly speaking, these do not distinguish between male, female and neutral, as the example of das Mädchen shows. It is not like German maidens were sexually neutral. If they are neutral, they are only grammatically neutral, with all the misunderstandings this can bring about. Other words like alleine (alone) or alle (all) are not subject to inflexion at all, they are invariant. Like the English must (which has inflexions in Spanish: tiene, tenemos, tienen…). This is usually not a problem when translating, the context mostly helps. But not always. The movie Solas comes to mind (Dir.: Benito Zambrano, 1999), which is listed in the Internet Movie Database as “Alone”, “Alleine” and “Solas”. Neither the English nor the German titles convey the sense of “more than one woman, all of them alone or lonesome”. Might this be the reason why this movie, which was highly lauded by the critics in Spain, never had the success it probably deserved abroad? This would be a pity, as it could have been averted. Anyway, for a more detailed description of the difficulties inherent to the translation of movie titles, see the German or the Spanish introduction section of this blog.

  • Euphemistical reasons: In the case of euphemisms, translators are left alone in the cold, pouring rain. It is simply impossible to translate something that is intended not to be understood. As every translator is taught in school, the golden rule of translation reads: first understand, then translate. A speaker might well have perfectly valid reasons for not wanting to be understood, but this still makes the task of the translator very difficult. The untranslatability for euphemistic reasons could also be seen as untranslatability for social reasons, especially so in the context of professional interpreters. The speaker, the interpreter and the listener are simply not on the same level. The speaker might want to say something without being accountable for the consequences, the listener will want to understand every shade of the speakers intentions, and the interpreter is caught between a rock and a hard place. Stress this fact (too much), and the communication suffers. Ignore it, and misunderstandings pop up. Whatever you do, it is wrong (which could be seen as another definition of untranslatable).

In this blog I will argue that it is regrettable we are taught there is a word for everything, because this hampers our imagination to express anything which has not been said before. Our imagination is curtailed. To prevent this, I will point to words that already exist in other languages and will make suggestions to adopt them.

What I do not mean by this concept of untranslatable words are ideas like the one expressed by Vladimir Nabokov when he stated: “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 of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into boredom.” With all due respect for Mr. Nabokov’s opinion, I consider this an unduly mystification. My aim is not to find some obscure word or expression that tries to convey some indistinct state of mind or condition of the soul so complex it does not have an equivalent among other languages because of their lack of sensitivity to a particular way of suffering that only a bottle of vodka could fix. Apart from the fact that words like Wehmut (in German), morriña (in Spanish) or saudade (in Portuguese) probably come close to this unassailable toska.

So we are looking for untranslatable words? Then give it a try. We will see where this excursion leads us. Just let me make something clear from the onset to avoid misunderstandings: just the fact that a given language (still) lacks a word or an expression does by no means imply that this language is in any way whatsoever inferior with respect to another language. No language is inferior to any other language. All it means is that the word or concept in question could be added to that language if the speakers of this language so choose. If they like the word, they will show by using it. That is all. And if the speakers of this language choose not to use the word in question? No problem. I am just presenting more or less serious observations. Just as you can bring your horse to the water trough but you can not force him to drink, so I will bring words into this debate. Whoever does not need them will ignore them.

Well, this finishes my introduction to my project on untranslatable words. The particular cases and examples I will give might involve several of the above mentioned reasons for being untranslatable or might be untranslatable for completely different reasons. I will not go into further details here, I would simply like to invite you, dear reader, to browse through my list of commented words. You may leave your comments and make proposals for their translation, if some idea comes to your mind, you may of course even make suggestions for additional difficult words. For your interest and contributions, many thanks in advance. Enjoy!