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What Is Untranslatability?

By Meg Higa
Updated May 23, 2024
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Untranslatability refers to expressions of a given language that simply cannot be converted into other languages. It can be a single word or a phrase, either written text or verbal utterance. Sometimes, the barrier is that of idiom or metaphor, something which only makes sense within the context of that particular language, or country’s, deeply set cultural experience. Other times, there may be no literal or dictionary translations of the expression’s component words. Best efforts at translation may even be counter-productive and may tend to confuse the original meaning.

Linguists who study the structure of, and mental mechanisms of, language will usually default in explaining untranslatability as a “lexical gap.” Lexicon is a language’s set of vocabulary represented by the equation “a concept = a word.” The gap occurs when two languages, formed by their respective cultures, do not share a particular common concept. In such cases, there are no equivalent words. Many untranslatable expressions are related to a culture’s conception of time, states of being and social relationships.

Most all languages have some cases of untranslatability. Languages must also have some means of effective translation. There are several techniques. The crudest of these is adaptation — to broadly translate “a potato” as “a rice grain” on the basis that they are the two languages’ respective main staple food. Another prevalent method is borrowing, which dispenses with translation all together and adopts the foreign word as new vocabulary.

Compensation is another way to express the untranslatability of language conversion. Many languages of the world have different words for the same thing. An example is the formal sie versus informal du in German, for the pronoun “you.” To compensate, a translator or interpreter might use the words “sir” or “dude,” respectively, to convey their different nuance of formality.

One way to deal with untranslatability is calque. Calque attempts to parse, or separate, an expression into its components. The readily available translation of its individual elements are often hyphenated, set in quotes, or otherwise made clear that the translation is of uncertain creation. The hope is that the totality of these stringed words conveys the foreign expression’s alien concept. Calquing often makes no sense, but it can be the translation of choice because it is an attempt to be literal.

Paraphrasing is an effective way of expressing that which is not translatable in another language. It replaces a word or phrase in one language with a completely unequal word or phrase in the translation. The equivalency comes when meaning is closely the same. For example, the English idiom for death, “to kick the bucket,” is best translated into German by paraphrasing it into its own equivalent, “to bite into grass.” With this technique, there is not only the attempt to connect a lexical gap, but also to bridge a cultural gap and find human commonality in different languages.

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