Untranslatable Words—What Happens When There’s No Word for That?

  |  February 14, 2018

What happens when there are untranslatable words?

It happens more often than you can imagine: untranslatable words. An English word that has no word or phrase in the language of a target market. Or a word in Farsi that can’t be adequately translated into Hungarian.

So what happens now? Is “close enough” good enough?

While there are many lists of alleged untranslatable words, an article in Public Radio International argues against untranslatability, given enough time. One of the primary reasons for finding so many untranslatable words in the English language is the melting pot nature of the United States. Because of the nation’s history of blending different cultures and backgrounds, American English is truly a mixed language enhanced by contributions from numerous other languages.

In his book Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon the absolute truth.” That concept poses mind-bending obstacles for professional translators.

Translation is not an art of perfection. Translation, at its core, is simply rendering thoughts and concepts from the source language into another. So, how do translators interpret words between languages without becoming hopelessly lost?

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Direct Translation

All translation efforts begin with attempts at literal—or direct—translation. This process is also called formal equivalence, and it closely follows the words of the source language. It is commonly referred to as word-for-word translation.

This is the most straightforward form of translating one language into another. When it’s appropriate, it makes for neat, accurate technical texts.

The problems arise when translating one word for another results in utterly nonsensical text or wording that just sounds cumbersome and awkward. Technical accuracy is not always the best way to convey the correct meaning. Some words and fixed expressions cannot be translated literally without grossly distorting or altogether losing the meaning.

Some common examples of these untranslatable words or phrases can be found associated with almost any culture-specific event. Imagine explaining the Russian banya, American Thanksgiving, or Spanish bullfighting to a person whose culture has absolutely no similar concept, observance or custom.

Continue this line of thought with such expressions as “having a chip on your shoulder,” “a leopard can’t change his spots,” or “this is a piece of cake.”

How can you translate such terms of cultural untranslatability without losing the the nuance and impact of your meaning completely? In these and other instances, the translator must move beyond the literal words to provide communication that conveys the same idea in the target language.

Adaptation of Untranslatable Words

When direct “word for word” translation is not adequate, translators use adaptation. In this practice, the translator uses other words or phrases in the target language to convey the meaning and connotation of the source text.

While some claim this method is highly subjective, it is still recognized as a useful and necessary means of adapting the source language to the target language, particularly with untranslatable words.

Adaptation is used often, especially when cultural differences cause confusion. For example, the American holiday of Thanksgiving is often adapted to “Day of Gratitude” in many languages.

This is one example of how adaptation can be used to overcome cultural untranslatability. The adapted term closely conveys the meaning of the untranslatable words while maintaining the intended core meaning.

Be careful not to confuse adaptation with localization. Localization is used when the target audience speaks a variation or dialect of the same language.

Adaptation is used when words or phrases cannot be translated literally between different languages. Adaptation is not being unfaithful to the original message; it is a necessary next step when untranslatable words appear in the source text. The professional translator must know to adapt a word or phrase when it might have a more appropriate equivalent for a given situation.

Word Creation When Faced With Untranslatable Words

When literal translation and adaptation both fail to provide an adequate solution for untranslatable words, translators may turn to simple borrowing. This is basically taking words from another language and adjusting their usage to the rules and grammar of the target language. Sometimes the spelling may be changed to correspond with the word’s pronunciation in the target language.

English has borrowed many words from Latin, French, and other languages. Alias, bona fide, Eau de Cologne, and hors d’oeuvres are just a few examples. While pundits and popular media seem fascinated by untranslatable words, reality demonstrates that human language is always evolving, growing, and changing.

So long as humans continue to invent words, people of all nations and languages will be able to understand the meaning of them. Adequate descriptions and equivalents will be chosen by professional translators to preserve the original meanings and nuances.

Every language has examples of linguistic untranslatability. Certain words may defy translation, but languages cannot. As to the question of accuracy in translations, that will always depend on how users of a particular language convey meaning.

For more than 35 years, ILS has been dedicated to helping clients achieve their goals. Our team provides accurate translations in more than 180 languages with strong expertise in many industries, making certain to find the right way to convey your meaning  even when it doesn’t seem like there is one.