Can a word be untranslatable?
“Whether the broader meaning of a text – the jokes, philosophies, and cultural peculiarities of its language – is translatable depends almost entirely on the individual with their nose in the dictionary (not to mention the dictionary itself).” (The Oxford Dictionary Blog)
When we say that a word is untranslatable, we tend to mean that it lacks an exact or word-for-word equivalent in our own language. In our desire to make everyone and everything understood, we sometimes forget that languages are living, writhing beasts: they evolve and mutate at such a rate that their genetic make-up is by nature very different, and it is almost impossible to pin them down. Although we can spot many commonalities between languages (just ask a friendly polyglot), there are also countless words that resist comparison. We are attracted to these outliers because they seem to fill the gaps in our own language and – if they originate from lands that are unfamiliar to us – they appear to unlock the secrets of other, distant cultures.”
– Wikipedia: Untranslatability
– BBC News: The world’s most difficult word to translate has been identified as “ilunga” from the Tshiluba language spoken in south-eastern DR Congo.
– Blog: Better than English – “We post words and phrases that don’t have direct English translations.”
– 11 Untranslatable Words From Other Cultures
– Book: Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon (Translation/Transnation)
– Book: How to Translate The…Untranslatable from English (from American) Into French and Vice Versa?: Comment Traduire…L’Intraduisible D’Anglais (D’Americ
Jacques Lezra: Dictionary of Untranslatables
Presentation by Jacques Lezra, Professor of Spanish, Portuguese and Comparative Literature at NYU.
This is an encyclopedic dictionary of close to 400 important philosophical, literary, and political terms and concepts that defy easy–or any–translation from one language and culture to another. Drawn from more than a dozen languages, terms such as Dasein (German), pravda (Russian), saudade (Portuguese), and stato (Italian) are thoroughly examined in all their cross-linguistic and cross-cultural complexities. Spanning the classical, medieval, early modern, modern, and contemporary periods, these are terms that influence thinking across the humanities.
Originally published in French, this one-of-a-kind reference work is now available in English for the first time, with new contributions from Judith Butler, Daniel Heller-Roazen, Ben Kafka, Kevin McLaughlin, Kenneth Reinhard, Stella Sandford, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Jane Tylus, Anthony Vidler, Susan Wolfson, Robert J. C. Young, and many more.The result is an invaluable reference for students, scholars, and general readers interested in the multilingual lives of some of our most influential words and ideas.
Image from New Zealand-based designer Anjana Iyer’s “Found in Translation” series of images