Untranslatable words

June 24th, 2004 § Comments Off on Untranslatable words § permalink

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)
longing
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)
loser

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?

Differences in language error patterns

February 10th, 2003 § Comments Off on Differences in language error patterns § permalink

As I wrote some of my last posts, I happened to notice that the pattern of errors in different languages seems to be different too. To explain why I noticed this, a bit of information about this blog follows.

I have another blog that mirrors this blog in my native language, which is Portuguese. Almost everything I write here ends up there as well and vice-versa. The few exceptions are posts in one of them that are heavily dependent on the cultural context and consequently wouldn’t make sense in the other blog. Writing in two different languages means a lot of translations and corrections back and forth between those languages. Most of the times I write the post in English and translated it back to Portuguese. It may seem strange, as Portuguese is my native language, but one of my goals with the English blog is to improve my English writing skills, which means I tend to prefer writing the posts in that language.

Obviously, I make a lot of errors when writing. In the last posts, I realized that the mistakes I make when writing in English are different from those I make when writing in Portuguese. The former are mostly phonetic errors, while the latter are often orthographic errors. For example, sometimes I write sense, when I mean to write since. In Portuguese, I usually have doubts about how a word is properly written. To use another example, I could write desvaneio (which is usually translated to reverie), when I should have written devaneio. It’s a spelling error, but different from the kind of spelling errrors that happen in English. I don’t quite know how to explain the difference. Observing a bunch of posts, newsgroup postings, and Web pages, I found a similar pattern.

I’m curious to know if my observations are true; if they are, I wonder how those patterns would be in other languages besides Portuguese and English. Well, I will search a little bit about this subject. If I can find any useful information, I will write more about it later.

English resources

January 2nd, 2003 § 2 comments § permalink

If English is a second language to you, take a look at the Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab. It has a lot of good material on various writing-related subjects including grammar, punctuation, and text organization. It also has a section entirely devoted to English as a Second Language.

Writing tips

November 13th, 2002 § 2 comments § permalink

An excellent tip from Ask Bjørn Hansen: Gar’s Tips on Sucks-Less Writing.

Ask talks about his problems with written English. I share his pain. I learned English by myself and I’m still struggling with the language. I can read anything, but writing is still too hard. When I finish a text, it always feels like something is missing: the order of the words in the sentences seems wrong, punctuation doesn’t look good, and I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not properly communicating what I intended.

I guess part of the problem is that I don’t speak English regularly. Now and then I meet someone who doesn’t speak Portuguese and I can practice, but most of the time the only practice I get are the books I read, e-mails exchanged with foreign friends, and this blog.

Anyway, it seems I’m improving. From what I can see people actually understand what I write, which is much of a surprise :-)

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