There was an interesting article on the BBC website a while back. It talked about the words chosen as “the most untranslatable” by a group of 1,000 linguists. They chose a doozy for the top spot:

The world’s most difficult word to translate has been identified as ilunga from the Tshiluba language spoken in south-eastern DR Congo. . . .

Ilunga means “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time”.

It was a fun read, but the article made a big mistake in the second paragraph I quoted above. It translated the word that was so untranslatable. How on earth did the BBC reporter, even assuming he had the help of that massive group of linguists, perform such a challenging task? The answer, of course, is that the word ilunga is perfectly translatable, just like all words.

A recent post to the H-Japan mailing list asked about “words that are untranslatable from English to Japanese or from Japanese to English.” One example given in the opening post in that thread was the English “bathroom.”

I replied to the post to ask why “bathroom” would be untranslatable. My suspicion was that the person meant “words that have no one-to-one equivalence,” since there are certainly plenty of ways to express the concept of a bathroom in Japanese.

I have seen some bright, capable students of translation during my time in the field. But a big wall that each and every one of them needs help getting over is learning that the meaning is more important than the words. A Japanese text has a certain effect on its Japanese readers; a quality J-E translation will have the same effect on English readers. If the word “bathroom” is being used by a person who wants to know where he can go wash his hands and face, then the Japanese translation will probably be senmenjo; if he wants to use the toilet then otearai or toire will suffice. And if we’re talking about a Western-style bathroom with the toilet and tub in one chamber, the word basuru-mu might even show up. Beginning translators trip over these problem words in the source language when they grope for that “one perfect term” in the target language. When they step back and think about meaning, and express that meaning accurately, they find the problem words far less challenging–and they begin to truly translate.

Here’s a sort of related quote from an article I worked on some years ago:

Natsume Soseki once taught his students that the correct Japanese translation for “I love you” is “Tsuki ga tottemo aoi naa” (The moon is so blue tonight); what he meant was that to express within the Japanese cultural framework the same emotion expressed in English by “I love you,” one must choose words like “The moon is so blue tonight.”
(from Sato Kenji’s “More Animated than Life: A Critical Overview of Japanese Animated Films,” Japan Echo, 12/97)

There are of course the old standby examples one hears when talking about “untranslatable” things. yoroshiku onegaishimasu, osewa ni natteimasu, and their ilk are part of a cultural system that is not directly paralleled in the West, and it’s not surprising that English has no pithy phrases in common use with those same meanings. That doesn’t mean that they cannot be expressed in English, though; depending on context (and it always depends on context) the former might be “I look forward to working with you” and the latter simply “hello.”

As I suspected, most of the “untranslatable” examples the question to the list brought up were those dependent on cultural and societal constructs that differ between Japan and the English-speaking world. And it doesn’t mean there is no translating them, it simply means that we can’t do it in the same amount of words. At times a translation will require paraphrasing, or a footnote, or even wholesale rephrasing and rearranging of the information in the source text. It’s always possible, in my experience, but it isn’t always easy.

Perhaps this makes it more challenging at times than translations from one Romance language to another, but that’s why I make more money than a translator in the EU.

One thought on “Untranslatability

  1. Hello Blogboy,

    I have Jello Man, and I will be doing nasty nasty things to him, if you do not make an effort to return and email from me very soon. I am trying to get to Japan, but I am not booking a fright until I can verify you will be around


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