The Fallacy of the Untranslatable

Every so often, another article will emerge about words which cannot be translated into English, or have no equivalent in English. There seems to be great appeal in the way that some concepts just cannot be translated into the English language, and therefore these words remain in their languages of origin, mysterious and unknowable.

You can find lists of various lengths. There’s this one from the Guardian, a list of 29 words that capture human emotion perfectly, one from Life Hack, and of course Culture Trip.

From German, there are some words we English speakers have lifted straight from the original, such as Schadenfreude lit. ‘pain-pleasure’, or ‘to take pleasure in someone else’s pain’, a bit lighter than masochism. There’s Feierabend, too, lit. ‘celebration evening’, which is the free time between leaving work and going to bed, and fiercely protected from work commitments.

Or Cafuné in Brazilian Portuguese, which is ‘the act of tenderly running fingers through someone’s hair’. Supposedly bakku-shan is a Japanese word meaning ‘a girl who is only attractive from behind’. A word in common parlance in English at the moment is from the Danish hygge, which indicates the coziness of good friends, satisfying food, a welcoming environment, and much more besides.

As a linguist, I dislike the sloppy approach to language as presented in these lists and articles.

Even though these articles all claim that the words cannot be translated, the writers then proceed to give a translation for each of them, as I have done above. Surely there would be no definition for an untranslatable word, because you wouldn’t be able to make sense of it in English at all.

It is a misconception that there are any words which cannot be translated into another language. If a word cannot be translated, then it can’t mean anything in the first place (if you want to understand why, I recommend Is that a Fish in your Ear: Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos).

Of course, they cannot be translated into a single word in English, but this is not the goal of translation. The goal is to transfer meaning from one linguistic system to another, so that it retains the meaning it had in the original context even though it is now in a new system with new rules. A translation is still a translation, even it requires more words in the target language.

This is not to say that words reveal nothing about the culture that produces them. Language and culture are intimately connected, so that language both reflects to the social and material reality of a people, as well as imprints interpretations onto the world.

But an equivalent meaning (that is, words which explain the concept) can be found in a target language for any concept that a source language has, to the extent that there can be a translation of anything.

Even people who speak the same language perform a kind of translation. I have an idea, I encode the idea in writing, which you read. The thing that you read is not the same as the idea in my head. It is an approximation of a mental image in written form. When we speak, we are imperfectly encoding thoughts into language so that they can transfer between people.

We do not communicate via telepathy. Concepts always change medium, even if they don’t cross a language boundary. The words you read now are not equivalent to the thoughts in my mind, try as I might to express clearly what I’m thinking.

In this way, words will always fall short. No language can truly and accurately express the internal reality of a speaker. Everything is a kind of translation, and can never become an exact representation of what was meant.

What are we left with, then? Two statements which are both true at the same time:

  1. Everything can be translated from one language to another

  2. Nothing can be translated from one language to another, insofar as nothing can even be translated from a speaker’s own mind into the words she employs.

This is what French-Algerian philosopher and deconstructionist Jacques Derrida called differance. That’s not a typo, it’s a word he invented and misspelled on purpose, even though in French it doesn’t alter the pronunciation.

He was making the point that words never quite mean what they mean. Words are just signs. And if you look to where the sign is pointing, you just find another sign, because how can you explain words without using other words?

We use language as if language is the stuff of which reality is made, but language is just a structure of meaning-making that we superimpose on our experiences. There is always a gap between word and reality and never the twain shall meet.

It is an impossibility that some words can be translated (into English, or any other language) and some cannot. One must accept that all things can be translated, if they can be translated at all.