Living with untranslatables

In my work as a translator, the term “untranslatable” comes up quite frequently. It’s usually a technical term referring to tags and similar markings in a text, or even brand names that shouldn’t be translated. Basically it is text that is there, it’s incomprehensible, but it does its job when paginating the final text. For the rest of time in my work, I just treat everything as if it were actually translatable, trying to render the original meaning as best I can.

As a functionally trilingual person, however, there are other untranslatables that have a deeper effect on me: terms that cover a specific state of mind, or elicit specific emotions in one language, and where there is nothing but a big void in its place in the other two, making it impossible to fully express what I wish to communicate in one or both of the other two languages I speak daily. It’s a strange kind of vertigo, standing there, looking into a conceptual vortex.

I grew up pretty much monolingual, but was obsessed with language from the very first time television entered into my family’s life, and I, at 6, discovered the joy of educational language programs. With only one channel to watch, I sponged up anything I could about other cultures and other languages. I remember obsessing with the differences between languages, mulling over expressions that don’t translate, reflecting on the way each language seems to express something missing already as a pre-teen.

On the phone yesterday I was speaking English to a friend who asked me “So how is your translation project going?”. Wanting to pause and think before answering fully, all of a sudden I felt a deep need of an equivalent to the Italian Insomma.

Insomma has a multitude of meanings. As an adverb it can mean “in short”, “all in all “so-so” , or “well”; as an exclamation it can be translated as “That’s enough” or “for Heaven’s sake”. But my favourite usage is  as a word you insert, almost like a pause, while you think of the real answer. In Norwegian, to obtain the same pausing effect, I’d have to insert a long pausing vowel, sort of like the English “er….”, which is neither pleasing to the ear,  nor very eloquent. In English you could use, “well,…”, but you’d have to continue the sentence almost right away. Insomma gives you time, and can save you from a lot of foot-in-mouth answers.

Didascalica is another word I keep looking for in my other two languages. It roughly translates into “didactic” in English, but I’d never use the English term in the areas I use its Italian counterpart. My husband labels me didascalica quite frequently, and it describes much more than my eagerness to teach and inborn informativeness. Didascalica is tied to the noun didascalia.  In current Italian it has several meanings: caption, commentary, legend, subtitle, explanation, but it also carries the weight of famous historical Didascalias, first and foremost: the Didascalia Apostolorum. This Didascalia is a treatise which pretends to have been written by the Apostles at the time of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), but which is in reality a pastoral treatise composed in the third century. And if I may add so myself: exceptionally detailed and boring. Clearly, didactic, as a translation of didascalica is a reduction of the original sense at a rate of 10:1.

Norwegians in their free time, love to kose seg. Kose seg has the quite linear meaning of “being cozy” or “enjoying oneself”, but the expression holds such a rich, image-generating context, that it defies translation. To kose seg is to be together, enjoy good food, to have pleasant, fuzzy feelings. The adjective form koselig describes anything that brings out those same emotions. A big, modern steel and glass kitchen wouldn’t be described as koselig; but a tiny, worn, cottage kitchen, with candles on the kitchen table, probably would. Koselig has an aftertaste of nostalgia; koselig smells of home-made bread.

Døgn – is a Norwegian word that signifies “the 24 hours from one day to another”. In most languages, the term “day” is a good enough description that covers two different meanings: the period from dawn till dusk AND the 24 hour period from a certain hour one day to the same hour the next day. North of the Arctic Circle, where I grew up, or even near the Arctic Circle, the term “day” is rather unclear, since the period from dawn to dusk will last for months in the summer (and there’ll be an equally long night during the winter). So there’s a need to coin a term that covers the 24 hour day. As far as I know, the concept døgn can only be found in Scandinavian and Russian, which makes sense when you look at what parts of the world around the Arctic circle that are actually inhabited.

If you’re still not convinced you grasp what I’m trying to say, I found a telling tale of the limits of translation in the Guadalajara Reporter

“Que es eso, compadre?” Ricardo asked the other day, as I consulted my Spanish-English dictionary. “Que perdida de tiempo” (what a waste of time), he added.
“What, a dictionary?” I replied.
“No, a bilingual dictionary.”
Then he started on me: “Como se dice ‘compadre’ en ingles?” (How do you say compadre in English?”)
I consulted the dictionary. “Close friend.”
“Hardly expresses the richness and vibrancy of the relationship, compa. And what about concuño?”
“Your spouse’s brother-in-law?”
“Sounds pretty clumsy to me,” said Ricardo.
I was getting the message.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics holds the view that languages in their essence are untranslatable, or at least that translation is very problematic: There are clouds of meaning around each word, even those translated as synonyms from one language to another. This hypothesis, while compelling, could make any person think at least twice before entering into a bi – or multilingual relationship, since it would be completely impossible to understand one another fully.

In his now more than 50-year-old novel, End of the Road, John Barth delves even deeper, when describing the gap between experience and articulation. Before your first word, there is experience, and it is this experience you try to translate when you’re in a bi-trilingual context:

Articulation: There by Joe, was my absolute. To turn experience into speech, that is, to classify, to conceptualize, to grammarize, to syntactify is always a betrayal of experience, a falsification of it, but only so betrayed can it be dealt with, and in so dealing with it did I ever feel a man alive and kicking.

Translating may always be a betrayal of experience and betrayal of the original words but, by God, living in this field of linguistic tension makes me feel alive.


~ by Hege on August 9, 2010.

3 Responses to “Living with untranslatables”

  1. […] into Norwegian (a dream language combination for me-). I especially like her latest blogpost „Living with untranslatables“ since – being a translator myself – I have always been intrigued by the English words […]

  2. A really nice post – untranslatables of all kinds are my favourite -)
    I’ve discovered your blog recently – inspiring. Hope to bring you more readers via my latest blogpost. Do keep writing!

  3. muy interesante la info. gracias me ha servido de mucho 🙂

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