Why Can’t Some Words Be Translated?
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Why Can’t Some Words Be Translated?

Words are more than just mere descriptors; they reflect relationships, attitudes, ideas, and values, among other things. 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."

Words provide us with a framework for expression, but no two frameworks can express the exact same set of ideas. Some even believe that in principle nothing can be translated because languages are so tightly linked to their culture of origin. Translation Studies scholar Susan Bassnett demonstrated this with the simple example of the English word “butter” and the Italian translation “burro,” which each carry different social connotations in their respective cultures, despite referring to the exact same thing.

Even if two frameworks generally overlap, there are gray areas where they don’t intersect. These “gaps” are most obvious with unique expressions whose complex meanings are elusive in another language. We might know what they convey, but there is no adequate equivalent.

A great example is the Russian word toska. Novelist Vladimir Nabokov describes it as follows: “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.” As toska has so many inflections and describes such a range of feelings, it is impossible to find an accurate English translation. Moreover, it is an essentially Russian expression that speaks specifically to the post-Soviet condition and is associated with a “communist nostalgia.”

Similarly, the Korean concept of han is regarded as a distinctively Korean cultural trait. Theologian Suh Nam-dong explains it as a "feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one's guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined." Han describes a collective feeling of oppression and isolation, accompanied by lament, sorrow, resentment, vengeance or grief. It is viewed as inherent to the Korean character and elementary to Korean life and culture. Scholars have theorized that the concept developed from Korea’s history of invasion and war or from its rigid class system.

Like toska and han, many untranslatable words lack an English equivalent because they are uniquely tied to an experience or phenomenon distinct to the country of their origin. The Spanish expression duende originally described a mythical, spirit-like creature that could possess humans and create feelings of awe when surrounded by nature. However, it developed into a term referring to “the mysterious power that a work of art has to deeply move a person.” Duende is now understood as the spirit of evocation, a bodily reaction to great art. While this concept had been initially linked to flamenco, poet Federico Garcia Lorca first outlined the aesthetics of duende in a lecture he gave in Buenos Aires in 1933, emphasizing irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical. According to critic Brook Zern "it dilates the mind's eye, so that the intensity becomes almost unendurable… There is a quality of first-timeness, of reality so heightened and exaggerated that it becomes unreal…" While toska, han, and duende denote very specific, multifaceted cultural sentiments there are also untranslatable expressions that are nevertheless easily understood across language and cultures, even if other linguistic communities that don’t have a word for it. The well-known German word Schadenfreude describes the pleasure derived from witnessing somebody else’s misfortune. The French term dépaysement designates the feeling resulting from not being in one’s home country. The Inuktitut (the language of the Inuit people) phrase ayurnamat defines the philosophy that there is no point in worrying about events that cannot be changed. The particularly beautiful (and tragic) Portuguese word saudade refers to the longing for something or someone you love and lost. Whereas all of these concepts are universally relatable, we can still trace their specific cultural roots.

There are also certain English expressions that can’t be translated. The English language often uses various iterations of the same concept, which don’t always have an exact equivalent in another language. For instance, the different ways of saying “walk” (“wander,” “stamp,” “stride,” “stagger,” or “stumble”) have to be paraphrased in Spanish as caminar sin rumbo fijo, caminar pisando fuerte, caminar a zancadas largas, etc. Similarly, “bread dough”, “cake mix,” “batter,” and “pastry” are all called massa in Portuguese. On the other hand, “put” doesn’t have an exact German counterpart and has to be substituted by a German word that would translate into different English verbs like “stack,” “lay,” “stand,” depending on where and how something is being put. A very popular English term used increasingly among young people in non-Anglophone countries is “awkward,” which perfectly encapsulates embarrassment, discomfort, and uncertainty.

Untranslatable expressions are essentially “gaps” that need to be filled by the translator. There are several different methods for translators to approach “untranslatability:” Adaptation, also known as “free translation,” means that the translator replaces the referential context of the source term with a corresponding context of the target culture (e.g., in the English translation of Belgian comic book The Adventures of Tintin, dog Milou becomes Snowy). Another method is a loan translation or calque, which is the literal, word-for-word translation of the source phrase (e.g., “brainwashing” calques Chinese走狗; pinyin: zǒu gǒu). Compensation is a translation method whereby the translator can make up for stylistic difficulties in the source text by introducing similar stylistic effects at other points in the target text (e.g., formal vs. informal pronouns like Sie and du in German is compensated in English through distinctions like last name vs. first name). Paraphrase or periphrasis describes the process in which the translator replaces an expression from the source language with a group of words in the target language (see duende or saudade). Borrowing describes the method whereby the translator simply uses the unmodified source phrase or word (typically printed in italics). Lastly, there’s the translator’s note (usually a footnote or endnote) that provides additional information regarding the specific difficulties of a particular translation.

Regardless of these effective translation methods, not all gaps between two languages can be filled. This is especially true in the case of poetry, puns and slang. However, they allow us to approximate the meaning of these untranslatable words, while also providing us with some valuable insight about their culture of origin.