We’d all like to believe in untranslatable words. It’s such a romantic thought: that there exist out there, like undiscovered desert islands, ideas we have never even conceived of. Carefully guarded by foreigners they have endured down the centuries, nuggets of culture overlooked by the rest of the world.
There are a fair few linguistic and non-linguistic assumptions bound up in this romance, most of which are decidedly dodgy. For example, the idea that any aspect of human experience could be inaccessible to you just because you speak the wrong language. Or that if a language doesn’t have a single word for a concept (that’s before we’ve even defined exactly what a “word” is), there can be no way to express it. Then there’s the notion that words are a reliable key to the culture that uses them. Drunken ones might have lots of ways to describe intoxication. Religious ones might have a rich vocabulary for mystical states, and so on.
Then there are the often-cited examples themselves. They’re nearly all ridiculous, when you look at them closely.
This charmingly sensuous word is Danish. One over-excited website says that it “designates the mentality and demeanor of being warm, accommodating and friendly. Politically, it finds an echo [in Denmark] to welcome political refugees.” How about just “comfy”? Google comes up “nice”, and one Dane on Twitter suggests “cozy”.
This Portuguese word crops up on lots of untranslatable lists. Writer Manuel de Melo has defined it as “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy”. To me that’s a reasonable description of the concept of “nostalgia”. It sounds like the important place that saudade occupies in the literary and musical tradition of Portuguese-speaking countries is the hard thing to “translate”. In other words, this is just a case of cultural difference.
In Norwegian, this word means “to sit outside on a sunny day enjoying a beer”. How quaint! Those cheeky Scandinavians, always nipping out for a Ringnes. Except that a) it’s not even a verb but a compound noun and b) ute simply means “out” or “outside”. Pils is self-explanatory, so the term is basically “outdoor-beer”. Hardly the anthropological discovery of the century.
The same list renders this Japanese word as “the bittersweetness of a brief and fading moment of transcendant beauty”. Or, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has it, “pathos”. A bit less of a mouthful.
Milan Kundera found himself unable to translate this Czech word into English. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, he defined it as “a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery”. Languages divide the spectrum of human suffering up differently. But English certainly has a plethora of contenders for a rough equivalent: self-pity, remorse, regret, anguish, shame.
“We have [In English] the same word for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed hard like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven flying snow – whatever the situation may be. To an Eskimo, this all-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable; he would say that falling snow, slushy snow, and so on, are sensuously and operationally different, different things to contend with; he uses different words for them and for other kinds of snow.” So wrote amateur linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf in a famous 1940 essay.
This is the untranslatability problem in reverse: “snow” would mean nothing to an Inuit, as its scope is far too large. But check out the Wikipedia page for snow in Inukitut, an Inuit language of Canada. It’s short. The idea that there are tens or hundreds of Inuit words for snow derives from a failure to understand the structure of this group of languages, which are able to fuse adjectives on to a root noun to create a new descriptor. Imagine if in English we wrote softsnow and crustysnow. Would our vocabulary have suddenly expanded?
With the breakup of Czechslovakia, Turks found themselves faced with the prospect of a fantastically long new word, which means “you are reportedly one of those that we could not make Czechoslovakian”. Not something we have a ready equivalent for in English. But once again, this feat is achieved by sleight of grammar. Turkish is an agglutinative language, in which the various parts of speech, tense and case markers are run together. It’s not really a word, but a sentence.
A useful concept from German. “An ingenious plan one hatches while drunk.” But untranslatable? It might be directed at opium-eaters rather than drinkers, but how about pipe dream?
Another German word, coined by the romantic poet Ludwig Tieck. Described as “a feeling of … being alone in the woods and a connectedness to nature”, it could equally be glossed forest-solitude. German is a language that makes extensive use of derivational synthesis to build new words. In English, as above, we might use hyphens to create something of the same effect.
Vladimir Nabokov gets all Milan Kundera about this Russian word: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause.” Twitter is more succinct:
This Urdu word, of Persian origin, apparently describes “the suspension of disbelief that can occur, often through good storytelling”. In fact, it simply means “it is said”, equivalent to “apparently”. Used in telling tales, certainly, but the “translation” picks up the associations of the word, rather than its meaning.
Russian wistfulness again. Razbliuto means “a feeling a person has for someone he or she once loved but no longer feels the same way about”. Or so William Safire believed. But he got it from Christopher J Moore, who got it from Howard Rheingold who got it from J Bryan III who got it from an episode of The Man from UNCLE, the scriptwriters of which evidently made it up. A case of Russian whispers?
But hang on …
These examples of “untranslatability” are all wrong or just silly in their various ways. But it’s hard to shake off the feeling that there’s some truth in the idea that speaking a different language makes you see the world slightly differently: as though wearing tinted glasses that lend everything a French or Russian tinge. Two ideas in linguistics are relevant here. The first, called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, holds that language determines what humans are capable of thinking. Since languages vary starkly, so must thought. After lots of study, few linguists now believe that a given language can do more than slightly alter what we pay attention to in a situation, usually through its grammar.
The second is the idea of structuralism, in which every part of the structure of a language is related. Think of it like this: the real world is a plain patch of ground, and language is a net we throw over it. Each time the net falls, every one of the diamond-shaped holes lands on a slightly different patch. The net’s a bit worn out, and some of the holes are torn, meaning they cover more ground. Some bunch up and cover less. Think of words as being like these holes: so saudade might mean something slightly more than homesickness, whereas dépaysement means something less, referring only to that kind of homesickness you get from being in a foreign country. Linguists have called the semantic space words occupy a “lexical field”.
So the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis falls, but the notion of lexical fields makes a lot of sense. In short: no word is completely untranslatable, but then no word is precisely translatable either. And, I promise you, that’s no schnapsidee.
You'll almost certainly have read a piece in which someone says "If the Inuit have 50 words for snow, surely Britons should have 50 words for 'rail replacement bus service'," or something along those lines. Here's one. Here's another, which claims that since Eskimos have X words for snow, the Japanese must have Y words for different kinds of porn. The trope is so common it's even got a name: "Snowclone". And it's false.
The myth that Eskimos or Inuit have some improbable number of words for snow (sometimes it's 50, sometimes it's as high as 400) is pervasive, but a myth nonetheless. In 1986, Laura Martin, a professor of modern languages at Cleveland State University, traced the origin of the claim back to a man called Franz Boas. In 1911, Boas wrote – as a throwaway line, illustrating a point about how languages resemble each other – that there are, as Martin paraphrases, "four lexically unrelated words for snow in Eskimo: aput 'snow on the ground', qana 'falling snow', piqsirpoq 'drifting snow', and qimuqsuq 'a snow drift'". Boas didn't make much effort to distinguish between words, roots of words, and other terms, Martin says.