“Untranslatable Words” – A reply to a recent Guardian article


I don’t usually post things like this, but a few things really irked me about an article… and its author.

The article in question is here (it’s not too long!): http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/21/12-untranslatable-words-and-their-translations

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while or have had a chance to explore a few more of my posts, you’ll see that I did something last year called “projectthreesixfive” which was based on a very similar concept: looking at, deciphering and providing suggestions to words that, on the face of it, do not have a one-to-one translation in English. It could be something culturally obscure to Western eyes (e.g. my first post, “Tingo“) or just difficult to summarise effectively in one word in English (e.g. “Natsukashii” (this links to another blog, because I’m really not the first person to do something like this!)).

Before we continue, let’s set a few things up to be absolutely clear:

  • Whereas I adore languages and linguistics, I do not know absolutely every language on this planet. Therefore, in several of my posts:
    • the actual translation of the word could be disputed
    • the classification of the word may be incorrect
    • there could be a really simple formation or clue that I’ve missed due to a lack of competency in the language
  • I have tried in each case to research the correct meaning, or at least, one that conveys something akin to what it does in its native language
  • There is no right or wrong in translations: give 500 translators the same, lengthy text and you’ll get 500 unique responses!

So, when it came to this article, I read through it and I was unclear with the motive of the author. As a sign off, he mentions that translation is never clear-cut, which is indisputable. But there definitely seems to be an air of (dare I say) arrogance in this post:

  • The author refers to these words as untranslatable, when countless attempts to translate these words exist online (seriously, do a Google search, you’ll find hundreds). Perhaps ‘difficult to translate accurately’ would be a more suitable description?
  • He refers to the translations found by others as “ridiculous,” and frequently opts for the more efficient attempts of one-to-one translation rather than accepting that, as could be needed in some contexts, the “wordier” translations are still valid
  • The dismissal of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (otherwise known as linguistic relativity: how thought dictates language or vice versa) seems quite unfounded. He mentions that “few linguists” follow this hypothesis, yet a search through academic articles shows lively and ongoing discussion in both those who support and those who refute the hypothesis, and the book “Through the Language Glass” by Guy Deutscher provides an incredible insight into how different languages perceive the world!

This is not to say that the article is useless. Of course, the translations offered up by the author do indeed allow for further discussion as to whether or not we should stick with short, one-word translations, and indeed whether the longer translations are superfluous to current, everyday meaning. But I ask this question:

Translation is an art, but one in which the original meaning is often hard, if not sometimes impossible, to convey with equal force. Why should we search for a “rough” one-word equivalent when we can use the creative and productive properties of language to convey as much emotion and feeling as possible?

The beauty of languages, from a descriptive linguistic perspective, is that there are many blurs to what is “right and wrong,” if indeed these two ends of the spectrum exist. I think the author would do well to remember this, rather than impose a few personal views as gospel.

Remember: just because you’re sat on the tallest tree, doesn’t mean that whatever you say is right =]


P.S. Interesting side note: the author has responded to various comments on Twitter regarding this article. That is, he has done for those who do not question his standpoint. Those that are questioning him have all but been ignored except for one or two instances (one of which involved a recycled retort that just screams “professional” (yes, that is sarcasm!))


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