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Untrans.eu

Introduction



Untranslatable? That is not possible! There is no such thing as an untranslatable word, anything that can be thought can be expressed. Anything that can be properly expressed can be translated into another language. Into any other sufficiently complex and rich language, as the principle of effability states. Only, I am afraid the situation is not that simple.

The hypothesis of Sapir-Whorf expresses the opposite point of view, stating that each language is different. This, so is claimed, has consequences for the way their (mono-linguistic) users think. This concept is also called principle of linguistic relativity. The semantics and grammar each language has determine in more or less subtle ways what can be imagined, thought and expressed in that language. The way I interpret this hypothesis, assuming it is right, untranslatable words would mark the limits of what can be thought in a given language. So, supposing we find untranslatable words, how would we define them? How could we know they are untranslatable? What could the reason for their untranslatability be? I guess the reasons will vary from case to case, as we shall probably see, but for the purposes of this blog I will argue that untranslatable words are those that sound and feel natural in one language, but artificial and unnatural in another. (Spoiler: The hypothesis of Sapir-Whorf is wrong, especially in its strong form. Language does not limit what you can think about and does not set a limit to what you can not think about. What language can do, however, is to make it easier to speak about things you have words for. It also makes it easier to express sexist or racist ideas: just use one word instead of another and everybody will know what kind of -ist you are.)

So we are looking for untranslatable words? Let's 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. Whoever does not need them will ignore them.

So without further ado I would like to invite the kind reader to have a look at the words I have listed so far, both the ones I have already commented as well as the ones I hope to find the time to comment any day soon. I would be delighted if you could suggest possible translations, contribute with other words that might have caught your attention and state your opinion about what has been done so far. This blog will only be as good and useful as its reader’s contributions, therefore I would like to thank you already in advance for your participation. I hope you enjoy it