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Off topic: Untranslatable words and phrases
Thread poster: xxxAnna Blackab
xxxAnna Blackab  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:04
German to English
+ ...
May 3, 2007

I came across this link on translating the untranslatable:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4457805

I thought it would make a good subject for an article so does anyone else on this forum have any ideas on words/phrases that they come across in their work that don't have an equivalent in their target language or are always difficult to translate exactly?

It's a really interesting area as it gives an insight into concepts and ideas that exist in certain cultures and not in others.

One that springs to mind straightaway for German is Gemütlichkeit - sometimes translated as cosiness in English - but I think that to a German speaker this has far more cultural connotations than to an English speaker.

All input on any language combinations would be really interesting.

Anna


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Victor Dewsbery  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 18:04
German to English
+ ...
normal May 3, 2007

Beats all the "untranslatables" in the world in my book.

Think of the question
"Why can't you just be normal?"

It is almost impossible for any two people to agree what this means - sometimes even within the same family.

Just acting normally
Victor


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Noni Gilbert
Spain
Local time: 18:04
Member (2007)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Boosting his sales! May 3, 2007

Thanks Anna - now I´ve ordered the book, so my husband can give me a birthday present I actually want!!
No doubt the debate about his definitions would go on for ever on ProZ.


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Nisreen Barakat  Identity Verified
Palestine
Local time: 19:04
English to Arabic
+ ...
So true! May 3, 2007

Indeed a very interesting topic!
I can mention a hundred expressions in my native language, Arabic, that have no equivalent in english or french or other foreign languages. Our language shows a great deal of politeness for instance, when one finishes having a shower, we have a saying for that! When one gets a haircut, we also have a saying especially dedicated for this deed; when one falls down, when one finishes doing a hard work, when one finishes eating, when one is coughing, etc.

Goodluck to all!


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Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 17:04
Member (2000)
Russian to English
+ ...
Russian: оперативный (operativny); обеспечивающий (obespechivayushchi) May 3, 2007

The Russian word operativny can occasionally mean operational, but usually it means something like topical or up to date, or it may mean reacting immediately to the prevailing situation (as the situation demands).
Obespechivayushchi means ensuring or making provision for, but it is mostly used in Russian where in English it would be left out altogether.


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Anne Patteet  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:04
English to French
+ ...
Tramitador, May 3, 2007

in Spanish, is a person who takes care of all steps and procedures in order to get something.
If you need a new passport or driver's licence, you use a tramitador (otherwise you may never get what you need ).


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Peter Shortall  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:04
Member
French to English
+ ...
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis May 3, 2007

I think what you've mentioned is related to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, according to which (in a nutshell) there are ideas in some languages which you can't express in others, and languages influence the way in which their speakers view the world. This can be due to the different obligatory grammatical categories that they possess: for example, English has number (there is a distinction between singular and plural which must always be marked on nouns) while Chinese generally lacks it, so the translator has to deduce from the context whether a noun should be translated in the singular or plural. If you want to say "the man is sick" in Siouan, your sentence has to indicate whether he is moving or not; if you want to say it in Kwakiutl, the sentence must indicate whether he is visible or invisible to you and also near to you, the hearer or a third party - but of course the English phrase tells you none of these things.

The opposite view is called the "principle of effability", according to which you can always express a given idea in another language somehow or other.

There are also cultural reasons, as you mention - what Catford calls "cultural untranslatability". He cites the example of the Japanese word "yukata", a loose robe bound by a sash, worn by men or women, which is supplied to hotel guests and can be worn outdoors or in bed. "Hotel dressing-gown" might come close, but since hotels in English-speaking countries don't give these to guests, it's unlikely an English-speaker would get the full meaning from this phrase alone - some kind of circumlocution or explanation would be necessary.

Another little phrase, off the top of my head: "spor la treabă/lucru!" in Romanian, which is what you say to someone when they're working or going to do some kind of work or other. Very roughly, "spor" means something like "efficiency" so the literal meaning would be "[I wish you] efficiency with [your] work!" But I don't think there's really anything idiomatic that you could say in English in that situation.

[Edited at 2007-05-03 12:45]


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Erik Hansson  Identity Verified
Germany
Member (2002)
Swedish
+ ...
Lagom May 3, 2007

is the first Swedish word that comes into my mind when thinking of untranslatable words.

This colloquial term can often be found in connection with adjectives and stands for something that is just fine, i.e. food that is not too cold (lagom kallt) or too hot (lagom varmt), an amount of something that is not much (lagom mycket) nor too little (lagom lite), a garden that is not too small (lagom liten) nor too big (lagom stor) and so on.

The term is not only impossible to translate, it's also very subjective and is a matter of personal perception.

Thanks for the interesting topic, by the way!


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Marsha Way  Identity Verified
Mexico
Local time: 11:04
Spanish to English
+ ...
What would you say? May 3, 2007

Nisreen Barakat wrote:

Indeed a very interesting topic!
I can mention a hundred expressions in my native language, Arabic, that have no equivalent in english or french or other foreign languages. Our language shows a great deal of politeness for instance, when one finishes having a shower, we have a saying for that! When one gets a haircut, we also have a saying especially dedicated for this deed; when one falls down, when one finishes doing a hard work, when one finishes eating, when one is coughing, etc.

Goodluck to all!


I was intrigued by this. Could you tell us what you would say in these cases, Nisreen. Now, I understand there is really no translation (No, I have not gotten "lost in Kudoz" yet!), but even just a very literal meaning. Are they politeness expressions like saying "God bless you" to someone who sneezes?
Sorry about this, but I was wondering if you could elaborate. This topic is very interesting!

I was thinking of the word "tramite" in Spanish when I read Anne's answer! Something as simple as a processing of papers can be that difficult! We very loosely call it paperwork, but I can't imagine a "paperwork processer"!
We like to sit around and translate English expressions very literally into Spanish, for example- She rubs me the wrong way (sounding very pornographic) or This is like beating a dead horse.


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Jenny Forbes  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:04
Member (2006)
French to English
+ ...
Swedish May 3, 2007

Erik Hansson wrote:

is the first Swedish word that comes into my mind when thinking of untranslatable words.

This colloquial term can often be found in connection with adjectives and stands for something that is just fine, i.e. food that is not too cold (lagom kallt) or too hot (lagom varmt), an amount of something that is not much (lagom mycket) nor too little (lagom lite), a garden that is not too small (lagom liten) nor too big (lagom stor) and so on.

The term is not only impossible to translate, it's also very subjective and is a matter of personal perception.

Thanks for the interesting topic, by the way!

Yes, an interesting topic.
I don't speak a word of Swedish (except "skol"), but I knew a most charming Swede once who jokingly said that he envied the British their rich language, and that the poor Swedes couldn't feel half the things the British feel because they lacked the words for such feelings. An intriguing idea, but probably not really true. Can one feel what one cannot express? What do you think, Erik?
Regards,
Jenny.
P.S. I often find the simple French word "travaux" quite tricky. I don't like "works" for building, etc. and sometimes use "project", but feel uneasy about it. Any ideas, anyone?
Then, there's the Dutch "lekke" (spelling??) - meaning I think "delicious", always accompanied by waggling one hand to and fro behind the ear!



[Edited at 2007-05-03 13:58]


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Can Altinbay  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:04
Japanese to English
+ ...
In Turkish (and some Japanese) May 3, 2007

Turkish also has a lot of nice things people say to each other in different situations.

Geçmiş olsun - "may it have passed" - said to a person who is ill or has had a misfortune.

There çok yaşa - "live long" - which isn't hard, because it's "bless you" or "gezundheit", in other words, what you say when someone sneezes. But that is followed by the sneezer's sende gör - "you see it, too" - clearly the other person would also have to live long to see the sneezer's long life!

Elinize sağlık - "health to your hands" - what you say to a person who cooked the great meal you just enjoyed.


By the way, Japanese has many of these compliments and salutations. Correspondence in general has lots of rules - how to start a letter, the matching term you use at the end, etc. They don't always follow these in more casual relationships and of course e-mail in particular, but business letters still conform. Also, business documents contain a word at the end that makes sure you understand that it is the end of the document. I see a lot of translations that preserve this as "End", but U. S. business writing has its own traditions, and I always strike it, and add to my Notes a line explaining that this is not a dropped translation.


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Jenny Forbes  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:04
Member (2006)
French to English
+ ...
Sin otro particular May 3, 2007

Can Altinbay wrote:

Turkish also has a lot of nice things people say to each other in different situations.

Geçmiş olsun - "may it have passed" - said to a person who is ill or has had a misfortune.

There çok yaşa - "live long" - which isn't hard, because it's "bless you" or "gezundheit", in other words, what you say when someone sneezes. But that is followed by the sneezer's sende gör - "you see it, too" - clearly the other person would also have to live long to see the sneezer's long life!

Elinize sağlık - "health to your hands" - what you say to a person who cooked the great meal you just enjoyed.


By the way, Japanese has many of these compliments and salutations. Correspondence in general has lots of rules - how to start a letter, the matching term you use at the end, etc. They don't always follow these in more casual relationships and of course e-mail in particular, but business letters still conform. Also, business documents contain a word at the end that makes sure you understand that it is the end of the document. I see a lot of translations that preserve this as "End", but U. S. business writing has its own traditions, and I always strike it, and add to my Notes a line explaining that this is not a dropped translation.


A bit like the Spanish "sin otro particular" at the end of a business letter, which can't really be translated into English without sounding a bit silly - "That's all for now" or something - so I leave it out.
Regards, Jenny.


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Olga Dubeshka  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 12:04
Russian to English
+ ...
culture and language May 3, 2007

This problem no doubt touched every practicing translator and interpreter at some point in their carreer.

As a child my favorite part in a translated book was ...
"translator`s notes" at the bottom of the page. This is where
you could get a glimpse at a very different , sometimes incomprehensible words or cultural realities. To the best of their ability, translators tried to make us understand what that word truly meant, if not through an equivalent word, then through a picture that they would paint with their explanations.

I , for once , have always been fascinated with trying to
convert realities of one language/culture to another, where these realities are simply missing or ignored. It might sound crazy, but the more "complicated" and "scientific" the texts are, I found that translations rarely have "untranslatables" in them, or if there is a "difficult" part the receiving party
has little trouble understanding what is meant - even with a very awkward translation!

However, in trying to explain to my husband what "propiska"
means ( those from ex-USSR countries no doubt know what I mean - when your are prevented from moving, relocating and getting jobs outside your "registered "area ) I miserably failed to express it`s true meaning through "registration".
He simply could not comprehend that government can restrict people from say, leaving or working outside their "area" just because...

I really like Peter`s take on "untranslatables" .
In my opinion, these are just realities that have to be
adjusted and maybe elaborated on in order to make them
understandable. Even so, some may remain puzzling to other cultures.


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lexical  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 18:04
Portuguese to English
Sem outro assunto May 3, 2007

Like Jenny's "Sin otro particular", Portuguese business letters often end with this, meaning literally "Without any other matter". It's quite untranslatable (except to Spanish) unless you are going to say ridiculous things like "Well, that's all for now" or "Can't think of anything else to say" or "Must dash to get this in the post".

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Margreet Logmans  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 18:04
English to Dutch
+ ...
Lekker! May 3, 2007

Hi Jenny,

the Dutch word you mean is 'lekker', and is used for a lot of things. When it's about taste, it can be accompanied by the gesture you describe, but I don't see a lot of people do that!
It can also refer to the joy of taking a short vacation or whatever. And lots more!

Thinking about untranslatable phrases, the Dutch expression 'Roomser dan de paus' comes to mind. It literally means: 'More Roman-catholic than the Pope' and it is said of someone who is very, very strict about certain things (can be all kind of things).

But there's a lot more, I guess. That's what makes translating interesting!

Best,
Margreet


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