Lost in translation – translating the untranslatable

How would you name the feeling when you see someone successful and you are extremely happy about this? Buddhist speaking the Pali language would answer that this is mudita. This is an example of untranslatable words. Though for translators such words are a phenomenon which they find difficult to accept, they do make the already diversified world of languages even more diverse.

The first encounter with an untranslatable word may be quite surprising both for translators and for other users of a foreign language. When we use a certain expression in our mother tongue we do not even think that it may not have its counterparts in other languages. Let’s think for a while then why certain words or expressions are untranslatable.

It can be seen that the greater cultural distance between the languages in a given language pair is, the greater number of untranslatable words can be found. This is due to the fact that the language reflects the culture, traditions and values characteristic for a given region. Quite often, expressions which cannot be translated into another language refer to phenomena and peculiarities which do not exist in other cultures. Analysing a given language we can see what members of a given community pay the greatest attention to, what emotions are of particular importance to them or what behaviours they consider to be intriguing.

However, literal translation may often be impossible also within languages spoken in a relatively small geographical region. Should it be the case, to render the meaning of a given word or expression we use metaphors or describe it with a few or even a dozen or so words, which does not necessarily reflect the overall meaning of an untranslatable word either.

This is often the case with emotions. The more complex and profound the feeling is, the more difficult it is to translate. A few examples of words whose literal translations are not possible to be found in Polish are presented below:

Cyprian Kamil Norwid wrote in one of his works that it is very difficult to “give the proper word to a thing”, which cannot be denied once we have realized what untranslatable words are. These are the proof of enormous cultural diversity of the world, as they show what is specific to a given culture and point to phenomena and emotions which are most appreciated in a given region. Translators need thus consider whether attempts to translate such words make any sense at all.

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