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Untranslatability is a property of a text, or of any utterance, in one language, for which no equivalent text or utterance can be found in another language when translated.
Terms are, however, neither exclusively translatable nor exclusively untranslatable; rather, the degree of difficulty of translation depends on their nature, as well as on the translator's knowledge of the languages in question.
Quite often, a text or utterance that is considered to be "untranslatable" is actually a lacuna, or lexical gap. That is, there is no one-to-one equivalence between the word, expression or turn of phrase in the source language and another word, expression or turn of phrase in the target language. A translator can, however, resort to a number of translation procedures to compensate for this.
- 1 Translation procedures
- 2 Examples
- 3 See also
- 4 References
- 5 External links
The translation procedures that are available in cases of lacunae, or lexical gaps, include the following:
An adaptation, also known as a free translation, is a procedure whereby the translator replaces a term with cultural connotations, where those connotations are restricted to readers of the original language text, with a term with corresponding cultural connotations that would be familiar to readers of the translated text.
For example, in the Belgian comic book The Adventures of Tintin, Tintin's trusty canine sidekick Milou is translated as Snowy in English, Bobbie in Dutch, Kuttus in Bengali, and Struppi in German; likewise the detectives Dupont and Dupond become Thomson and Thompson in English, Jansen and Janssen in Dutch, Jonson and Ronson in Bengali, Schultze and Schulze in German, Hernández and Fernández in Spanish, 杜本 and 杜朋 (Dùběn and Dùpéng) in Chinese, Dyupon and Dyuponn in Russian and Skafti and Skapti in Icelandic.
Borrowing is a translation procedure whereby the translator uses a word or expression from the source text in the target text unmodified.
In English text, borrowings not sufficiently anglicised are normally in italics.
Calque entails taking an expression, breaking it down to individual elements and translating each element into the target language word for word. For example, the German word "Alleinvertretungsanspruch" can be calqued to "single-representation-claim", but a proper translation would result in "Exclusive Mandate". Word-by-word translations usually have comic value, but can be a means to save as much of the original style as possible, especially when the source text is ambiguous or undecipherable to the translator.
Compensation is a translation procedure whereby the translator solves the problem of aspects of the source text that cannot take the same form in the target language by replacing these aspects with other elements or forms in the source text.
For example, many languages have two forms of the second person pronoun, namely an informal / singular form and a formal / plural form. This is known as T-V distinction, found in French (tu vs. vous), Spanish (tú / vosotros vs. usted/ustedes), Russian (ты vs. вы), Dutch (jij vs. u), Bengali (tumi and tui, vs. aapni ), German (du / ihr vs. Sie) and Italian (tu / voi vs. Lei), for example, but not contemporary English. Hence, to translate a text from one of these languages to English, the translator may have to compensate by using a first name or nickname, or by using syntactic phrasing that is viewed as informal in English (I'm, you're, gonna, dontcha, etc.), or by using English words of the formal and informal registers, to preserve the level of formality (you sir, Mister). Similarly, to overcome the lack of distinctive singular and plural forms, the translator may add a word, as in the New English Bible's John 1.51 "I tell you all".
Paraphrase, sometimes called periphrasis, is a translation procedure whereby the translator replaces a word in the source text by a group of words or an expression in the target text. For example, the Portuguese word saudade is often translated into English as "the feeling of missing a person who is gone". Yet another example, similar to the Portuguese "saudade", is "dor" in Romanian, translated into English as "missing someone or something that's gone and/or not available at the time".
An example of untranslatability is seen in the Dutch language through the word gezelligheid, which does not have an English equivalent, though the German equivalent Gemütlichkeit is sometimes used. Literally, it means a cozy, friendly, or nice atmosphere, but can also connote time spent with loved ones, the fact of seeing a friend after a long absence, the friendliness or chattiness of a specific person, or a general sense of togetherness. Such gaps can lead to word borrowing, as with pajamas or Zeitgeist.
A translator's note is a note (usually a footnote or an endnote) added by the translator to the target text to provide additional information pertaining to the limits of the translation, the cultural background, or any other explanations. This is pretty much required because "Translation is a challenging activity and there are few difficulties that emerge throughout the translation process since every language portrays the world in diverse way and has its own grammar structure, grammar rules and syntax variance. For example, Greek has separate words for ‘light blue’ and ‘dark blue’, while other languages, such as Welsh and Japanese, have words that can denote ‘blue’ or ‘green’, or something in between." 
Although Thai has words that can be used as equivalent to English "I", "you", or "he/she/it", they are relatively formal terms (or markedly informal). In most cases, Thai people use words which express the relation between speaker and listener according to their respective roles. For instance, for a mother to say to her child "I'll tell you a story", she would say "แม่จะเล่านิทานให้ลูกฟัง" (mae ja lao nitaan hai luuk fang), or "Mother will tell child a story". Similarly, older and younger friends will often use sibling terminology, so that an older friend telling a younger friend "You're my friend" would be "น้องเป็นเพื่อนพี่" (nawng pen peuan pii), would translate directly as "Younger sibling is older sibling’s friend". To be translated into English correctly, it is proper to use "I" and "you" for these example statements, but normal Thai perceptions of relation are lost in the process. Similar phenomena can also be observed in Indonesian. One may use the formal form of pronouns, which are generally distinct from the informal/familiar forms, however the use of these pronouns does not evoke sufficient friendliness or intimacy, especially in spoken language. Instead of saying "Anda mau pesan apa?", a waiter/waitress will most likely say "Bapak/Ibu mau pesan apa?" (lit. Sir/Madam wants to order what?). Both expressions are equally polite; however, the latter is more sympathetic and friendly. When conversing with family and relatives, most Indonesians also prefer using kinship terminology (father, mother, brother, sister, etc.) when addressing elder family members. When addressing younger family members, informal pronouns are more prevalent.
In the case of translating the English word have to Arabic, Bengali, Finnish, Hebrew, Hindi, Irish, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Turkish, Urdu, or Welsh, some difficulty may be found. There is no specific verb with this meaning in these languages. Instead, for "I have X" these languages use a combination of words that mean X is to me; or (in Finnish) at me is X; (in Turkish) my X exists; or (in Hebrew) there(-is) (to-)me( or mine) X. In the case of Irish, this phrasing has passed over into Hiberno-English.
In Hungarian, there is a word corresponding to "have": bír — but its use is quite scarce today usually turning up in very formal and legal texts. It also sounds outdated, since it was used to translate the Latin habeo and the German haben possessive verbs when these languages had official status in Hungary. The general grammatical construction used is "there is a(n) X of mine". For example, the English sentence "I have a car." translates to Hungarian as "Van egy autóm." which would translate back to English word by word as "There is a car of mine.".
A similar construction occurs in Russian, where "I have" translates literally into at (or by) me there is. Russian does have a word that means "to have": иметь (imet') — but it is very rarely used by Russian speakers in the same way English speakers use the word have; in fact, in some cases, it may be misinterpreted as vulgar slang for the subject rudely using the object for sexual gratification; for example, in an inept translation of "Do you have a wife?"
In Japanese, the English word "to have" is most often translated into the verbs iru (いる or 居る) and aru (ある or 有る). The former verb is used to indicate the presence of a person, animal, or other living creature (excluding plant life) while the latter verb is closer to the English "to have" and is used for inanimate objects. To indicate the English "have" in the sense of possession, the Japanese language uses the verb motsu (持つ), which literally means "to carry."
English lacks some grammatical categories.
There is no simple way in English to contrast Finnish kirjoittaa or Polish pisać (continuing, corresponding to English to write) and kirjoitella or pisywać (a regular frequentative, "to occasionally write short passages at a time", or "to jot down now and then"). Also, hypätä and skoczyć (to jump once) and hyppiä and skakać (to continuously jump; to be jumping from point A to B) are another example.
Irish allows the prohibitive mood to be used in the passive voice. The effect is used to prohibit something while expressing society's disapproval for that action at the same time. For example, contrast Ná caithigí tobac (meaning "Don't smoke" when said to multiple people), which uses the second person plural in the imperative meaning "Do not smoke", with Ná caitear tobac, which is best translated as "Smoking just isn't done here", uses the autonomous imperative meaning "One does not smoke".
As in Latin, Italian has two distinct declined past tenses, where io fui (passato remoto) and io sono stato (passato prossimo) both mean I was, the former indicating a concluded action in the (remote) past, and the latter an action that holds some connection to the present. The "passato remoto" is often used for narrative history (for example, novels). Nowadays, this difference is partly geographic. In the north of Italy the "passato remoto" is rarely used in spoken language, whereas in the south it often takes the place of the "passato prossimo".
Likewise, English lacks a productive grammatical means to show indirection but must instead rely on periphrasis, that is the use of multiple words to explain an idea. Finnish grammar, on the contrary, allows the regular production of a series of verbal derivatives, each of which involves a greater degree of indirection. For example, on the basis of the verb vetää (to pull), it is possible to produce:
- vetää (pull),
- vedättää (cause something/someone to pull/to wind-up (lie)),
- vedätyttää (cause something/someone to cause something/someone to pull),
- vedätätyttää (cause something/someone to cause something/someone to cause something/someone to pull).
|Finnish||English||Translation/Paraphrase of boldface verb|
|Hevonen vetää.||A horse pulls.||pulls|
|Ajomies vedättää.||A driver commands the horse to pull.||causes something to pull|
|Urakoitsija vedätyttää.||A subcontractor directs the driver to command the horse to pull.||causes someone to cause something to pull|
|Yhtiö vedätätyttää.||The corporation assigns the subcontractor to have the driver command the horse to pull.||causes someone to cause someone to cause something to pull|
Hindi has a similar concept of indirection. 'Karna' means 'to do'; 'karaana' means 'to make someone do'; 'karwaana' means 'to get someone to make yet another person do'
Most Turkic languages (Turkish, Azeri, Kazakh, etc.) contain the grammatical verb suffix "miş" (or "mis" in other dialects), which indicates that the speaker did not witness the act personally but surmises or has discovered that the act has occurred or was told of it by another. Examples: "Gitmiş!" (Turkish) which can be expressed in English as "it is reported that he/she has gone" or, most concisely, as "I guess he has gone". This grammatical form is also usually used when telling jokes and narrating stories. As well, nearly every Quechua sentence is marked by an evidential clitic, indicating the source of the speaker's knowledge (and how certain s/he is about the statement). The enclitic =mi expresses personal knowledge (Tayta Wayllaqawaqa chufirmi, "Mr. Huayllacahua is a driver - I know it for a fact"); =si expresses hearsay knowledge (Tayta Wayllaqawaqa chufirsi, "Mr. Huayllacahua is a driver, or so I've heard"); =chá expresses high probability (Tayta Wayllaqawaqa chufirchá, "Mr. Huayllacahua is a driver, most likely"). Colloquially, the latter is also used when the speaker has dreamed the event told in the sentence or experienced it under alcohol intoxication.
Languages that are extremely different from each other, like English and Chinese, need their translations to be more like adaptations. Chinese has no tenses per se, only three aspects. The English verb to be does not have a direct equivalent in Chinese. In an English sentence where to be leads to an adjective ("It is blue"), there is no to be in Chinese. (There are no adjectives in Chinese, instead there are stative verbs that don't need an extra verb.) If it states a location, the verb "zài" (在) is used, as in "We are in the house". In some other cases (usually when stating a judgement), the judgment verb "shì" (是) is used, as in "I am the leader." And in most other cases, such structure ("to be") is simply not used, but some more natural structure in Chinese is used instead. Any sentence that requires a play on those different meanings will not work the in the same way in Chinese. In fact, very simple concepts in English can sometimes be difficult to translate, for example, there is no single direct translation for the word "yes" in Chinese, as in Chinese the affirmative is said by repeating the verb in the question. ("Do you have it?" "(I) have".)
German and Dutch have a wealth of modal particles that are particularly difficult to translate as they convey sense or tone rather than strictly grammatical information. The most infamous example perhaps is doch (Dutch: toch), which roughly means "Don't you realize that . . . ?" or "In fact it is so, though someone is denying it." What makes translating such words difficult is their different meanings depending on intonation or the context.
A common use of the word doch can be found in the German sentence Der Krieg war doch noch nicht verloren, which translates to The war wasn't lost yet, after all or The war was still not lost.
Several other grammatical constructs in English may be employed to translate these words for each of their occurrences. The same Der Krieg war doch noch nicht verloren with slightly changed pronunciation can also mean excuse in defense to a question: . . . but the war was not lost yet (. . . so we fought on).
A use which relies heavily on intonation and context could produce yet another meaning: "So the war was really not over yet (as you have been trying to convince me all along)."
Another change of intonation makes the sentence a question. Der Krieg war doch noch nicht verloren? would translate into "(You mean) the war was not yet lost (back then)?"
Another well-known example comes from the Portuguese or Spanish verbs ser and estar, both translatable as to be (see Romance copula). However, ser is used only with essence or nature, while estar is used with states or conditions. Sometimes this information is not very relevant for the meaning of the whole sentence and the translator will ignore it, whereas at other times it can be retrieved from the context.
When none of these apply, the translator will usually use a paraphrase or simply add words that can convey that meaning. The following example comes from Portuguese:
- "Não estou bonito, eu sou bonito."
- Literal translation: "I am not (apparently) handsome; I am (essentially) handsome."
- Adding words: "I am not handsome today; I am always handsome."
- Paraphrase: "I don't look handsome; I am handsome."
Some South Slavic words that have no English counterparts are doček, a gathering organized at someone's arrival (the closest translation would be greeting or welcome; however, a 'doček' does not necessarily have to be positive); and limar, a sheet metal worker.
Another instance is the Russian word пошлость /posh-lost'/. This noun roughly means a mixture of banality, commonality, and vulgarity. Vladimir Nabokov mentions it as one of the hardest Russian words to translate precisely into English.
For various reasons, such as differences in linguistic features or culture, it is often difficult to translate terms for family members.
Many Bengali kinship words consider both gender and age. For example, Father's elder brothers are called Jethu (জ্যাঠা)' while younger brothers are called Kaku (কাকু). Their wives are called Jethi-ma (জেঠি-মা) and Kaki-ma (কাকি-মা), respectively. Father's sister is called Pisi (পিসি), mother's sister is Maasi (মাসি). Mother's brother is called Mama (মামা) and his wife, Mami (মামি). English would just use Uncle and Aunt. An elder brother is Dada (দাদা), elder sister is Didi (দিদি), while the younger brother is Bhai (ভাই) and younger sister, Bon (বোন). Similar is the case with many Indian languages like Hindi, Gujarati and many others.
It is usually also difficult to translate simple English kinship words accurately into Chinese, for Chinese distinguishes great amounts of kinship terms, depending on the person's actual position in family kinship.
Most Thai words expressing kinship have no direct translations and require additional words. There are no Thai equivalents for most daily English kinship terms, as English terms leave out much information that is natural to Thai.
As an example, Thai does not distinguish between siblings by gender, but by age. Siblings older than yourself are พี่ (Pii), and those younger are น้อง (Nawng). Almost similar distinctions apply to aunts and uncles, based on whether they are older or younger than the sibling parent, and also whether they are maternal or paternal uncles. Thai disregards gender when aunts or uncles are younger than his/her parents. But when aunts and uncles are older siblings of his/her parents, gender comes to differentiate them but whether they are from maternal or paternal side is no longer important. For instance, น้า (Naa) means "mother's younger brother/sister". อา (Aah) means "father's younger brother/sister". But ลุง (Loong) means "father's or mother's older brother" and ป้า (Paa) means "father's or mother's older sister". As for nieces, nephews, and grandchildren, Thai only have one genderless word, หลาน (Laan) to describe all of them.
In Arabic, "brother" is often translated into أخ (Akh). However, whilst this word may describe a brother who shares either one or both parents, there is a separate word - شقيق (Shaqeeq) - to describe a brother with whom one shares both parents.
In Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Lao, Tagalog, Turkish, most north Indian languages, Sinhala, Tamil, Telugu and Hungarian there are separate words for "older brother" and "younger brother" and, likewise, "older sister" and "younger sister". The simple words "brother" and "sister" are rarely used to describe a person, and most commonly appear in the plural. (In Hungarian, however, the terms "fiútestvér" and "lánytestvér", meaning "male sibling" and "female sibling" respectively, exist but are not commonly used.)
Swedish, Norwegian and Danish have the terms farmor and farfar for paternal grandparents, and mormor and morfar for maternal grandparents. The English terms great-grandfather and great-grandmother also have different terms in Swedish, depending on lineage. This distinction between paternal and maternal grandparents is also used in Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali and many Indian languages, Chinese, and Thai.
Norwegian also has the terms sønnesønn, dattersønn, datterdatter and sønnedatter, meaning respectively "son of my son", "son of my daughter", "daughter of my daughter", and "daughter of my son". Similar words exist in Swedish, Danish and Icelandic. In both cases, there exist terms synonymous with the English grand-prefixed ones which are used when exact relation is not an issue. This distinction is also used in Chinese, whereas Chinese almost always states the relationship clearly.
Aunts and uncles
In Danish, Hindi, Gujarati, German, Tamil, Kannada, Punjabi, Bengali, Persian, Turkish, Chinese and South Slavic languages there are different words for the person indicated by "mother's brother", "father's brother" and "parent's sister's husband", all of which would be uncle in English. An exactly analogous situation exists for aunt. In Thai this concept is taken a step further in that there are different words for the person indicated by "mother's elder brother" and "mother's younger brother", as well as "father's elder brother" and "father's younger brother".
The Polish language distinguishes "paternal uncle" ("stryj") and "maternal uncle" ("wuj").
Swedish (and Danish) has words tante for "auntie" or lady in general, moster for maternal aunt, and faster for paternal aunt, but the last two are contractions of mors syster and fars syster ("mother's sister" and "father's sister", respectively). The same construction is used for uncles (rendering morbror and farbror). In Danish, and occasionally in Swedish, the word onkel corresponds to the Danish word tante.
The distinction between maternal and paternal uncles has caused several mistranslations; for example, in Walt Disney's DuckTales, Huey, Dewey, and Louie's Uncle Scrooge was translated Roope-setä in Finnish (Paternal Uncle Robert) before it was known Scrooge was Donald's maternal uncle. The proper translation would have been Roope-eno (Maternal Uncle Robert). This is also the case for Donald Duck, who is called Aku-setä in Finnish and not Aku-eno, despite being the brother of Huey, Dewey and Louie's mother.
Arabic contains separate words for "mother's brother" خال (Khāl) and "father's brother" عم ('Amm). The closest translation into English is "uncle", which gives no indication as to lineage, whether maternal or paternal. Similarly, in Arabic, there are specific words for the father's sister and the mother's sister, خالة (Khala(h)) and عمة ('Amma(h)), respectively (in both cases being the feminine forms of the masculine nouns, by addition of fatḥa-tāʾ marbūṭa). Bengali has separate words for such relations, too.
Albanian distinguishes maternal and paternal aunts and uncles; paternal uncle and aunt being "xhaxha" and "hallë" respectively, while maternal uncle and aunt being "dajo" and "teze" respectively.
IsiZulu, spoken in South Africa by the Zulu people, distinguishes between maternal and paternal uncles and aunts. Paternal uncles (father's brothers) are designated as 'fathers' where 'baba omkhulu' (meaning 'great father') designates brothers older than the father, and 'baba omncane' 'meaning 'small father' designates brothers younger than the father. The archaic 'babekazi' meaning 'female father' or the modern 'Anti' borrowed from the English 'Aunt' is used for the father's sisters. Likewise, the mother's sisters are also 'mothers' with the mother's older sisters designated as 'mama omkhulu' (meaning 'great mother') and the mother's younger sisters designated as 'mama omncane' (meaning 'small mother'). The mother's brother is called 'malume'- which is the translation of the usual English uncle and is the one used conventionally as in English- to apply to older family friends, respected older males or male peers of the parents. In Zulu culture, a child of the father's brothers or the mother's sisters is 'brother' (or 'mfowethu') or 'sister' (or 'dadewethu') since their parent is a 'father' or 'mother'. 'Mzala' (cousin) is applied to children of one's mother's brother or father's sister.
Nephews, nieces, and cousins
Whereas English has different words for the child of one's sibling based on its gender (nephew for the son of one's sibling, niece for the daughter), the word cousin applies to both genders of children belonging to one's aunt or uncle. Many languages approach these concepts very differently.
The Polish language distinguishes a male cousin who is the son of an uncle ("brat stryjeczny") and a male cousin who is the son of an aunt ("brat cioteczny"); and a female cousin who is the daughter of an uncle ("siostra stryjeczna") and a female cousin who is the daughter of an aunt ("siostra cioteczna"). Polish distinguishes four kinds of nephew and niece: the son of a brother ("bratanek"), the daughter of a brother ("bratanica"), the son of a sister ("siostrzeniec"), and the daughter of a sister ("siostrzenica").
Though Italian distinguishes between male (cugino) and female (cugina) cousins where English does not, it uses nipote (nephew/niece) for both genders, though a masculine/feminine article preceding this can make the distinction. Moreover, this word can also mean grandchild, adding to its ambiguity.
Albanian as well has two genders for cousins, male ("kushëri") and female ("kushërirë"). It also distinguishes between nephew ("nip") and niece ("mbesë"), but both those words can also mean "grandson" and "granddaughter" respectively.
The Macedonian language also distinguishes between male (братучед (bratuched)) and female (братучетка(bratuchetka)) cousins, the son or daughter (respectively) to an aunt or uncle. The Bulgarian language is similar in this respect, and contains an extensive list of words for referring to family members and relatives, including relations by marriage and acqaintance.
Spanish and Portuguese distinguish in both cases: the son of a sibling is sobrino/sobrinho, whereas a daughter is sobrina/sobrinha, equally a male cousin is primo, while a female cousin is prima. However, when used in the plural, and both genders are involved, only the masculine form is used. If a speaker says that he went out with his cousins (primos) last night, it could refer to a group of all men, or of men and women. All women would use the female form. This is a general rule in that the plural male form is used in any group of people that may be of mixed gender, not just cousins.
Norwegian and Danish also distinguish both cases: the son of a sibling is nevø, whereas a daughter is niece, equally a male cousin is fætter, while a female cousin is kusine. Collectively the term søskendebarn is used for both. Swedish does not make these distinctions, although it keeps the term syskonbarn - and adds brorsbarn or systerbarn depending on the gender of the sibling whose children it is.
Dutch, on the other hand, distinguishes gender: neef (male) and nicht (female), but it does not have different terms for nephew and cousin, except the unusual oomzegger and oomzegster. That is, both a son of a sibling and a son of an uncle are generally called neef.
Persian, Hebrew and Arabic contain no word for "cousin" at all; one must say "uncle's son" or an equivalent.
Relations by marriage
There is no standard English word for the Italian "consuoceri", Yiddish "makhatunim" or the Spanish "consuegros": a gender-neutral collective plural like "co-in-laws". If Harry marries Sally, then in Yiddish, Harry's father is the "mekhutn" of Sally's father; each mother is the "makheteyneste" of the other. In Romanian, they are “cuscri”. In Bengali, both fathers are Beayi and mothers, Beyan.
Spanish contrasts "brother" with "brother-in-law" ("hermano", "cuñado"); "son" with "son-in-law" ("hijo", "yerno"), and similarly for female relatives like "sister-in-law" ("cuñada"); "daughter-in-law" ("nuera"). Bengali has Dada/Bhai for brother and Jamai-Babu/Bhagni-Pati for brother-in-law; Chhele for son and Jamai for son-in-law.
Serbian and Bosnian have specific terms for relations by marriage. For example, a "sister-in-law" can be a "snaha/snaja" (brother's wife, though also family-member's wife in general), "zaova" (husband's sister), "svastika" (wife's sister) or "jetrva" (husband's brother's wife). A "brother-in-law" can be a "zet" (sister's husband, or family-member's husband in general), "djever/dever" (husband's brother), "šurak/šurjak" (wife's brother) or "badžanak/pašenog" (wife's sister's husband). Likewise, the term "prijatelj" (same as "makhatunim" in Yiddish, which also translates as "friend") is also used. Bengali has a number of in-law words. For example, Boudi (elder brother's wife), Shaali (wife's sister), Shaala (wife's younger brother), Sambandhi (wife's elder brother/Shaali's husband), Bhaasur (husband's elder brother), Deor (husband's younger brother) Nanad (husband's sister), Jaa (husband's brother's wife), etc.
In Spanish, Concuño or Concuñado (varying by dialect) is the relationship between two men that marry sisters (or two women that marry brothers). In the English language this relationship would be lumped in with "Cuñado" (sibling's husband or spouses brother) as simply "brother-in-law".
In Russian, fifteen different words cover relations by marriage, enough to confuse many native speakers. There are for example, as in Yiddish, words like "сват" and "сватья" for "co-in-laws". To further complicate the translator's job, Russian in-laws may choose to address each other familiarly by these titles.
In contrast to all of the above fine distinctions, in American English the term "my brother-in-law" covers "my spouse's brother", "my sister's husband", and "my spouse's sister's husband". In British English, the last of these is not considered strictly correct.
Objects unknown to a culture can actually be easy to translate. For example, in Japanese, wasabi わさび is a plant (Wasabia japonica) used as a spicy Japanese condiment. Traditionally, this plant only grows in Japan. It would be unlikely that someone from Angola (for example) would have a clear understanding of it. However, the easiest way to translate this word is to borrow it. Or one can use a similar vegetable's name to describe it. In English this word is translated as wasabi or Japanese horseradish. In Chinese, people can still call it wasabi by its Japanese sound, or pronounce it by its Kanji characters, 山葵 (pinyin: shān kuí). However, wasabi is currently called 芥末 (jiè mò) or 绿芥 (lǜ jiè) in China and Taiwan. Horseradish is not usually seen in Eastern Asia; people may parallel it with mustard. Hence, in some places, yellow mustard refers to imported mustard sauce; green mustard refers to wasabi.
Another method is using description instead of a single word. For example, languages like Russian and Ukrainian have borrowed words Kuraga and Uruk from Turkic languages. While both fruits are now known to the Western world, there are still no terms for them in English. English speakers have to use "dried apricot without core" and "dried apricot with core" instead.
One particular type of foreign object that poses difficulties is the proper noun. As an illustration, consider another example from Douglas Hofstadter, which he published in one of his "Metamagical Themas" columns in Scientific American. He pondered the question, Who is the first lady of Britain? Well, first ladies reside at the Prime Minister's address, and at the time, the woman living at 10 Downing Street was Margaret Thatcher. But a different attribute that first ladies have is that they are married to heads of government, so perhaps a better answer was Denis Thatcher, but he probably would not have relished the title.
Poetry, puns and wordplay
The two areas which most nearly approach total untranslatability are poetry and puns; poetry is difficult to translate because of its reliance on the sounds (for example, rhymes) and rhythms of the source language; puns, and other similar semantic wordplay, because of how tightly they are tied to the original language. The oldest well-known examples are probably those appearing in Bible translations, for example, Genesis 2:7, which explains why God gave Adam this name: "God created Adam out of soil from the ground"; the original Hebrew text reveals the secret, since the word Adam connotes the word ground (being Adama in Hebrew), whereas translating the verse into other languages loses the original pun.
Similarly, consider the Italian adage "traduttore, traditore": a literal translation is "translator, traitor". The pun is lost, though the meaning persists. (A similar solution can be given, however, in Hungarian, by saying a fordítás: ferdítés, which roughly translates as "translation is distortion".)
That being said, many of the translation procedures discussed here can be used in these cases. For example, the translator can compensate for an "untranslatable" pun in one part of a text by adding a new pun in another part of the translated text.
Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest incorporates in its title a pun (resonating in the last line of the play) that conflates the name Ernest with the adjective of quality earnest. The French title of the translated play is "L'importance d'être Constant", replicating and transposing the pun; however, the character Ernest had to be renamed, and the allusion to trickery was lost. (Other French translations include "De l'importance d'être Fidèle" (faithful) and "Il est important d'être Aimé" (loved), with the same idea of a pun on first name / quality adjective.) A recent Hungarian translation of the same play by Ádám Nádasdy applied a similar solution, giving the subtitle "Szilárdnak kell lenni" (lit. "One must be Szilárd") beside the traditional title "Bunbury", where "Szilárd" is a male name as well as an adjective meaning "solid, firm", or "steady". Other languages, like Spanish, usually leave the pun untranslated, as in "La importancia de llamarse Ernesto", while one translation used the name Severo, which means "severe" or "serious", close to the original English meaning. Catalan translations always use "La importància de ser Frank". This example uses the homophones "Frank" (given name) and "franc" (honest, free-spoken), although it also gives, because the use of the Romance copula (verbs "ser" and "estar", as in Spanish), the appearance of an archaism, since "ser Frank" is not a construction usually used to mean "being [called X]". Although this same solution would work in Spanish also ("La importancia de ser Franco"), it carries heavy political connotations in Spain due to Francisco Franco's dictatorship (1939–1975), to a point that even this possible title can be taken directly as ironic/sarcastic: literally, "The importance of being Franco", so this alternative was never used.
Other forms of wordplay, such as spoonerisms and palindromes are equally difficult, and often force hard choices on the translator. For example, take the classic palindrome: "A man, a plan, a canal: Panama". A translator might choose to translate it literally into, say, French – "Un homme, un projet, un canal: Panama", if it were used as a caption for a photo of Theodore Roosevelt (the chief instigator of the Canal), and sacrifice the palindrome. But if the text is meant to give an example of a palindrome, he might elect to sacrifice the literal sense and substitute a French palindrome, such as "Un roc lamina l'animal cornu" ('A boulder swept away the horned animal').
Douglas Hofstadter discusses the problem of translating a palindrome into Chinese, where such wordplay is theoretically impossible, in his book Le Ton beau de Marot – which is devoted to the issues and problems of translation, with particular emphasis on the translation of poetry. Another example given by Douglas Hofstadter is the translation of the jabberwocky poem by Lewis Carroll, with its wealth of neologisms and portmanteau words, into a number of foreign tongues.
According to Ghil'ad Zuckermann, "iconicity might be the reason for refraining from translating Hallelujah and Amen in so many languages, as if the sounds of such basic religious notions have to do with their referents themselves – as if by losing the sound, one might lose the meaning. Compare this to the cabbalistic power of letters, for example in the case of gematria, the method of interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures by interchanging words whose letters have the same numerical value when added. A simple example of gematric power might be the famous proverb נכנס יין יצא סוד nikhnas yayin yåSå sōd, lit. "entered wine went out secret", i.e. "wine brings out the truth", in vino veritas. The gematric value of יין "wine" is 70 (י=10; י=10; ן=50) and this is also the gematric value of סוד "secret" (ס=60; ו=6; ד=4). Thus, this sentence, according to many Jews at the time, had to be true."
- Haque, Md. Ziaul. "Translating Literary Prose: Problems and Solutions", International Journal of English Linguistics, vol. 2, no. 6; 2012, p. 101. Retrieved on 2013-01-12.
- Hofstadter, Douglas (1997). Le Ton beau de Marot (First ed.). Basic Books. pp. 143–144. ISBN 0-465-08645-4.
- Hofstadter, Douglas (1989). Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Vintage Books ed.). Vintage Books. pp. 366–368. ISBN 0-394-75682-7.
- See p. 246 of Ghil'ad Zuckermann (2006), "'Etymythological Othering' and the Power of "Lexical Engineering" in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. A Socio-Philo(sopho)logical Perspective", Explorations in the Sociology of Language and Religion, edited by Tope Omoniyi and Joshua A. Fishman, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 237-258.
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