How would you say that in English What does the Spanish phrase ‘el de la vergüenza’ mean?
If you typed it into Google Translate, the literal translation ‘he of the shame’ would appear. But in Spanish it refers to the last morsel of a plate of food. We English speakers know the difficult situation of deciding how to take the last portion without appearing selfish.
In English we have no word for that last piece of food, therefore here is an expression which you could call ‘untranslatable’.
Translation is not an art of perfection. Translation is just the process of rendering something from one language to another. There are many different ways to do this. However with some words, once they have been translated, there is a feeling that something is missing. Therefore, untranslatable does not mean that it is impossible to understand a word in another language. It is rather the feeling that you haven’t quite properly explained the true meaning of the word.
Other interesting examples of so-called ‘untranslatable’ words include:
Dépaysement (French) – The feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country. Not quite homesickness, but the feeling of being a foreigner, or an immigrant, of being somewhat displaced from your origin.
Aprovechar (Spanish) – This verb is usually translated as ‘to take advantage of’, but has a much stronger meaning. It also carries the meanings ‘to exploit’, ‘to seize’ and ‘to harness’.
Schadenfreude (German) – This word refers to the feeling of pleasure after seeing another person’s misfortune. Other languages have failed to invent an exact translation.
Enmadrarse (Spanish) – For a child to become attached excessively to his/her mother.
Saudade (Portuguese) – included in many lists of ‘untranslatable’ words, this Portuguese word refers to the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost.
This year, the ‘Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon’ was published in English, having been translated from the French original. The work includes more than 400 philosophical, literary, and political terms and concepts chosen from over a dozen languages, which all produce difficulties when translating. The origins and meanings of each term are described, as well as the history and context of its usage and its official translations into other languages.
The work has faced criticism for various reasons. Firstly, it is perhaps self-defeating to label words as ‘untranslatable’. Does it mean that when we come across these words in translating, we are doomed before we have even begun?
Also, by labeling certain concepts as ‘untranslatable’, there is a risk of stereotyping these cultures and the people who speak those languages. This brings us to another criticism. According to the dictionary, the English word for happiness, is different from the French translation bonheur and the German word seligkeit. Is the book declaring that there is an exclusive French or German feeling of happiness?
On the other hand, there is a relationship between language and culture. Language is used to maintain and convey culture and cultural ties. Therefore, it is not surprising that for some words from languages with different cultures, an exact translation seems impossible. In order to keep the cultural identity of a language, perhaps finding exact translations of words is not necessary.