Translating the Untranslatable: Should We Accept the Challenge or Really Not?


Different languages handle linguistic features differently (i.e., gender, verb tenses, time, space, and metaphors). Nouns in different languages have different genders. For example, in Spanish, the Moon is female, while the Sun is male; the opposite is true in German. In some languages (i.e., German and Russian), gender differences affect not only nouns but also pronouns and possessives, as well as verb endings. Cognitive scientists and linguists alike have proposed that different languages represent different systems of thought and that learning a new language can change the way we think.

Different Ways of Expressing Space

Lera Boroditky, cognitive scientist and researcher in the fields of language and cognition, has analyzed special expressions from Aboriginal languages of Northern Australia. Boroditsky discovered that speakers of those languages articulated spatial dimensions differently from English speakers. They did not use “left” and “right” but rather described it using cardinal terms “east” and “west”. Boroditsky concluded that these differences were symptomatic of a “parallel universe” of thinking by speakers of those aboriginal languages.

….and Agency

Different languages describe actions and define the agent in different ways. In Spanish, for example, you would say “the vase broke itself” even if the agent of such pitiful action is known. The same holds true for Japanese, where the agent of causality is dropped. Boroditsky, following her predecessor Benjamin Lee Whorf, strongly embraces the notion that the language you speak affects the way you think, which is a notion that has been contested in linguistics and it is in fact a minority position in the field. And yet there are some words that defy translation and somewhat express concepts that are specific to particular cultures. Is the lack of an equivalent term across languages enough of a reason to believe speakers of different languages experience the same world in different ways?

Words with No English Equivalent

Let’s think of some untranslatable words. Waldeinsamkeit: German word to describe the feeling of solitude that comes with being alone in the woods and a connectedness to nature; Sobremesa: Spanish term to describe the lingering conversation at the table, between people who have shared a meal together. Komorebi: Japanese for when sunlight filters through the trees and the interplay between the light and the leaves. Iktsuarpok: Inuit word which describes the feeling of anticipation for someone coming that leads you to go outside and impatiently check if they are there.

And finally, hygge (pronounced like hoo-ga in English), Danish word which evokes both coziness and togetherness during the winter months. It is generally translated into English with “coziness” but the translation does not do justice to the very Scandinavian concept. Jamie Kurtz, a psychology professor who teaches a course on Scandinavian happiness at James Madison University, has stated that the word hygge is “the key to understanding why these countries thrive instead of dive during the winter months”. “I’ve heard Danes and Norwegians talk about how they really look forward to winter, because they get to cultivate this side of themselves,” says Kurtz.

Surrender to Non-Equivalency?

Sometimes, trying to translate some specific concepts may in fact not be the best strategy and may not produce meaningful rendering of a concept in the target language. Rather, surrendering to non-equivalence may result in a “better” translation strategy. Speakers of different languages may conceptualize and experience the world differently. English speakers undeniably do not experience the winter months in the same way Danish people do. But with a keen creative mind, the translator can bring the essence of the untranslatable term to the reader.

This article is written by a professional writer, Ilaria Ghelardoni, associated with Ulatus.  

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