Words are the human framework for expression, but despite our best efforts, there are some phrases in other languages that just don’t translate into English—and vice versa. These untranslatable words are nothing new to experienced translators who know the vagaries of human language.
Many linguists maintain that any given culture can only be fully understood in its own particular language. This popular belief echoes the thoughts of some literature experts who affirm that the writings of Pushkin can only be truly understood and appreciated when read in his mother tongue, Russian.
And yet, it has also been said that the English translation of the Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam is of much higher quality than the original Persian language version.
Nevertheless, every language includes information in its own method, and this results in untranslatable words. So, what happens when translators encounter untranslatable phrases that just don’t have an English equivalent?
How Do Untranslatable Words Occur?
Words or phrases are considered untranslatable when there is no exact equivalent meaning in the target language. This can occur for any number of reasons.
The translation process normally begins with efforts at direct—or literal—translation. Known as formal equivalence, or “word-for-word” translation, this technique seeks to translate each word in the source language into another word in the target language.
However, this neat and orderly attempt at technical accuracy does not always convey the correct meaning in every language. Some words or phrases are simply untranslatable into another language because the resulting meaning is utterly nonsensical.
Also, due to the disparity between languages, many words or phrases just sound awkward and cumbersome when directly translated.
Even if two languages are similar in construction, there are problem areas where they don’t intersect. These include singular expressions whose complicated meanings are untranslatable into another language. We might know the idea they seek to convey, but there is no adequate equivalent expression.
What Are Some Examples of Untranslatable Words or Phrases?
Many examples of difficult words and untranslatable phrases can be found within culture-specific events or practices.
For example, most English speakers are familiar with the phrase “bread and butter,” as the two go together and are considered the very basics of food. In fact, we use the phrase as slang to refer to someone’s basic living (“that’s how he earns his bread and butter”).
However, although Italian has a word for butter, “burro,” it is not understood the same as our English butter. It is unsalted, used for cooking, and never spread on bread or any other food at the table.
Therefore, the English concept of “bread and butter” as a basic food staple, or the slang usage, would be completely incomprehensible in Italian.
Another example is just one of many untranslatable Russian words: toska. Renowned Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov describes the difficulty in translating this word into English:
“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.”
Since this Russian word describes such a broad range of feelings, how is it possible to choose an English word to adequately express its meaning?
Likewise, there are certain untranslatable English words with which translators wrestle. English is actually a poor language for expression because it often uses the same word to convey a variety of meanings.
For example, we love french fries, we love our grandmother, we love movies, we love our children, and we love God. Obviously we do not love all these the same, and yet we use the same English word to express our feelings for each.
How Do Translators Handle Untranslatable Words?
When direct, literal translation efforts cannot identify a suitable word in the target language to equal a word in the original language, translators must turn to one of two translation methods: adaptation or word creation.
This method seeks to use a commonly understood word or phrase in the target language to convey the meaning of the untranslatable word or phrase in the original language. An example would be the English word “thanksgiving.”
For cultures that have no such holiday or observance, the word makes no sense. So, this word is often translated as “day of gratitude” in many languages.
This method is more accurately “word borrowing,” as instead of generating an entirely new, previously unknown word, translators simply borrow a word from another language. Sometimes the usage and grammar must be adjusted to fit into English, but the word becomes part of common vernacular. Some examples would be hors d’oeuvres, bone fide, and alias.
Every language contains words or phrases that are untranslatable using formal equivalence. In order to guarantee the highest level of accuracy and convey the correct meaning between languages, translators must have experience in the language as well as be familiar with cultural nuances and industry terminologies.