Not long ago I was given the task of presenting an untranslatable word at an event at the Free Word Centre, where I am translator in residence. This interest in untranslatable words, which ties into one of the centre’s new lines of inquiry, The Power of Translation, began last year with a blog that compiled untranslatable words from different languages (freewordcentre.com). There were some fantastic words that would arguably make welcome additions to English: who among us hasn’t experienced tsundoku, for example, the Japanese word for “the act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piling it up together with other such unread books”.
On the surface this seemed like a simple task because in bringing pieces of writing over into English I often come across words that resist straightforward translation. I am somewhat uncomfortable, however, with the very notion of calling a word “untranslatable”, since if I fail to translate the words on the page in front of me I’m obviously not doing my job properly. In order to get round this impasse (there’s another example for you) I had to define “untranslatable” in my own terms: a word in one language that has no single-word equivalent in another, yet can be translated using various different strategies.
The word I chose to present was the Spanish cursilería, a noun derived from the adjective cursi, which means twee, naff, tacky, corny etc. Earlier this year, and after hours of the geekiest debate imaginable, a group of fellow translators and I rendered this as “tacky waffle”, which worked in the context of the phrase we were looking at but could also be translated in many other ways in different phrases. (We also learned the magnificent phrase “cursi como un repollo con lazo“, which translates as “twee as a cabbage with a ribbon”.)
The danger with such untranslatable words is that it’s tempting to infer general cultural characteristics from them, to assume for example that because the Japanese have a word for the aforementioned variety of book abandonment they must all be serial abandoners, or that the Spanish are world leaders in tackiness; I doubt that either is the case. All the same, it’s interesting to reflect on what these words can show us about the practice of translation and its role in communication between cultures.
In an increasingly globalised society, most of us engage with translated words on a daily basis. We are accustomed to accessing web content from all over the world, and the popularity of books such as Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy or TV programmes like The Killing show we’re not scared of engaging with material that has crossed a language barrier. That said, how often do we stop to reflect on the process through which that material is rendered intelligible to us, and what happens to it in that process?
No two languages map neatly on to one another with direct correspondences between words. Languages are bound up with the cultures of their users and have all developed in different contexts and along different paths. There is also a great deal of variation in the way different individuals relate to the language they use. As Gregory Rabassa, translator of many great Latin American writers, points out in his memoir If This Be Treason, “It seems easy to match like words (dog/cão) and proceed on. What dog connotes for me, however, is probably different from what cão suggests for António Lobo Antunes, although in common usage he must of course be satisfied with cão as I must be with dog.” Does that, then, render all words untranslatable, and translation impossible? Perhaps so, but it is a necessary impossibility, at times a very fine one.
When confronted with a word that doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English, there are several strategies I can use to deal with it. I can go for the word, or phrase, that I believe has the closest meaning to the original. I might choose to include the foreign word in italics and either trust that there is enough contextual information for my readers to work out what it means, or sneak in a short explanatory phrase (I try to avoid using footnotes because they interrupt the flow of the text). Sometimes there’s even a case to be made for inventing a new word in English to fill the gap highlighted by the foreign concept.
Conversely, there are times when I might choose not to translate a word for which there is a direct equivalent in English, based on the way it fits into the rhythm or the sound pattern of the text. In a very short, poetic story by the Chilean writer Luis Sepúlveda, for example, the name of a bird, “una avutarda” crops up. Translated directly this would be “a great bustard”, but it just didn’t sound right in the piece of English I was creating – so I went for the less precise but also less sonically intrusive “some great bird”.
But what does all this mean for those people who don’t spend their lives obsessing over the minutiae of foreign words as I do? I think it’s important to recognise that translation is about making creative decisions, particularly when so-called untranslatable words are concerned. Good translation shimmies its way round untranslatable words in a host of different ways, and we have to be aware that every word that we read in a translation has been chosen for a reason, in order to create a certain effect and to work as part of a whole. Just like the words in any piece of good writing, really.