Untranslatable words

June 24th, 2004 Comments Off on Untranslatable words

Via Roberto, a curious bit of news: “Congo word ‘most untranslatable’.” According this news item, a British company, in consultation with a thousand linguists, compiled a list of the ten most difficult words to translate. The list includes, in the seventh place, our Portuguese word “saudade”.

In order, the words are (found elsewhere, so it’s not guaranteed to be correct):

Ilunga (Tshiluba)
a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time
Shlimazl (Yiddish)
a chronically unlucky person
Radioukacz (Polish)
a person who worked as a telegraphist for the resistance movements again Soviet ocupation in the countries behind the former Iron Curtain
Naa (Japanese)
a word used in a part of the country to emphasize statements or to show agreement with them
Altahmam (Arab)
a kind of deep sorrow
Gezellig (Dutch)
cozy, snug
Saudade (Portuguese)
Selathirupavar (Tamil, a language spoken in Southern India)
a word used to define a certain type of absence without official leave in face of duty
Pochemuchka (Russian)
a person who makes way too many questions
Klloshar (Albanian)

Some of the words above seem deceptively simple, but more than often they have meanings that can only be expressed in approximate ways in other languages. Such is the case of “saudade”, that is commonly translated as a kind of longing, but it’s more close to “a sweet and sorrowful reminiscence of persons or things that are far away or are no more, coupled with a desire to see or posses them again.”

As someone who has done a lot of translations in the past (and still does, in this blog), I understand this problem too well (and I guess you can see that too in my problems with English). For interpreters, the problem in magnified since they generally don’t have the time to think about different ways to translate hard words.

A related problem is that of languages that can combine words to form more complex expression. Both English and German are famous for that. In those cases, translation becomes much harder.

Sometimes those problems can result in humorous incidents. For example, in the official site of a favorite writer of mine, the writer himself recently mentioned that the name of one of his characters, that in English was called “Saltheart Foamfollower”, was translated to “Briny, the Pirate” in the French edition of his books. I laughed until my sides ached when I heard that. Of course, that’s an exaggerated example, but it surely shows to what extent translation can be hard. Only very experienced translators would be able to get the name right in their native languages. (By the way, the reasoning behind the name is: “Saltheart” means “sea”, and “Foamfollower” mean “compass”, so the name really means “Sea Compass”, which is very appropriate in the context of the story it which it appears.)

Considering the complexity of human languages, this is a problem that will exist as long as languages are different. And, in truth, we want it to exist. After all, what fun would it be if all languages were similar?

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