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This page Untranslatability is part of the medium specificity series.  Illustration: Laocoön and His Sons ("Clamores horrendos" detail), photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
This page Untranslatability is part of the medium specificity series.
Illustration: Laocoön and His Sons ("Clamores horrendos" detail), photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Not able to be translated. The work of Jean-Pierre Brisset is untranslatable

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.

Terms are neither exclusively translatable nor exclusively untranslatable; rather, the degree of difficulty of translation depends on their nature, as well as the translator's abilities.

Quite often, a text or utterance that is considered to be "untranslatable" is actually a lacuna, or lexical gap. That is to say that 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, however, can resort to a number of translation procedures to compensate.


Translation procedures

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 translation procedure whereby the translator replaces a social, or cultural, reality in the source text with a corresponding reality in the target text; this new reality would be more usual to the audience of the target 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, and Struppi in German; likewise the detectives Dupond and Dupont become Thomson and Thompson in English, Jansen and Janssen in Dutch, Schultze and Schulze in German, Hernández and Fernández in Spanish, and Template:Lang and Template:Lang (Dùběn and Dùpéng) in Chinese — the Spanish and Chinese examples not being quite so faithful translations since the pronunciation of the two names is different, and not just the spelling.

Similarly, when Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay adapted Gogol's play Revizor (The Government Inspector), as Template:Lang, he transposed the setting from Russia to his home province.

This is particularly notable in the translation of the names of Disney characters, as many names employ similar vocal sounds or puns.

Adaptation is often used when translating poetry, works of theatre and advertising.


Borrowing is a translation procedure whereby the translator uses a word or expression from the source text in the target text holus-bolus.

Borrowings are normally printed in italics if they are not considered to have been naturalized in the target language. Template:See also


Calque is a translation procedure whereby a translator translates an expression (or, occasionally, a word) literally into the target language, translating the elements of the expression 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: an informal form and a formal form (the French Template:Lang and Template:Lang, the Spanish Template:Lang and Template:Lang, the German Template:Lang and Template:Lang, to name but three), while most modern-day dialects of English no longer recognize the T-V distinction, and have retained the you form only. 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 are viewed as informal in English (I'm, you're, gonna, dontcha, etc.), or by using English words of the formal and informal registers.


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.

An extreme example of paraphrase can be found in the BBC reports of June 22 2004 of the identification of the "most untranslatable" word. The word chosen is Template:Lang, a word supposedly from a language in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The BBC article states that "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'."

Incidentally, the word Template:Lang is of questionable provenance, as some Congolese (notably the Congo government) claim that it is simply a name, without additional connotations. See the article Template:Lang for more information.

Another example of paraphrase is the Portuguese word Template:Lang, which is often translated at a loss into English as "the feeling of missing a person who is gone".

Translator's note

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.

Some translation exams allow or demand such notes. Some translators regard resorting to notes as a failure, although this view is not shared by most professionals.


In the case of translating the English word have to Arabic, Finnish, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Irish, Japanese, 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 Turkish) my X exists or (in Hebrew) there is X to me. In the case of Irish, this phrasing has passed over into Hiberno-English. A similar construction occurs in Russian, where "I have" translates literally into with/near me there is. (Russian does have a word that means "to have": Template:Lang (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 children?").

Another example is family members. English has different words for nephew, niece, and cousin (note the use of cousin for both sexes). Romance languages distinguish between the latter, but not always between the former: for example Italian Template:Lang and Template:Lang for cousin (male) and cousin (female), but Template:Lang (nephew/niece) for both genders. Moreover, Template:Lang can also mean grandchild (a distinction between male and female can, however, be made by adding the masculine or feminine article before the noun). Dutch, on the other hand, distinguishes gender: Template:Lang (male) and Template:Lang (female), but it does not have different terms for nephew and cousin. That is, both a son of a sibling and a son of an uncle are called Template:Lang. Sibling is another word for which German has an expression (Template:Lang) but Dutch does not.

In Arabic, the word brother is translated into أخ (Akh). However, there is also a special word that defines a brother who shares both parents as opposed to a brother who shares one or both parents. That word is شقيق (Shaqeeq). There is also a special word for an uncle who is the mother's brother: خال (Khal). There is also a special word for an uncle who is the father's brother: عم ('am). Such words are untraslatable into English. The closest translation is "uncle," which gives no indication as from which parent's side he is related to the individual. Similarly, in Arabic, there are specific words for the father's sister, mother's sister, a person whose father died, a person whose mother died, and an array of words that describe specific actions by animals and humans that do not have a direct translation into English.

Conversely, in Arabic, there is no word for "cousin", either; you must say "mother's brother son" or an equivalent. Similarly, in Japanese there are separate words for "older brother" and "younger brother", and likewise "older sister" and "younger sister". Swedish has words tant 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), but there is no word corresponding to tant mentioned above - here farbror (paternal uncle) is used instead.

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). Uncle Scrooge is "Farbror Joakim (Paternal Uncle Joachim) in Swedish.

Conversely, English is entirely lacking some grammatical categories. For example, there is no simple way in English to contrast Finnish Template:Lang (continuing, corresponding to English to write) and Template:Lang (a regular frequentative, "to occasionally write short passages at a time"). Another example for a tricky English construct would be: How would you ask a boy who has several brothers "which" (or "which-th") son of his parents he is, such that his reply would be something like: "I am the third son"? ("Which in order of number?") This is a straightforward construct in some other languages, which have an exact word for "which-th", such as Finnish Template:Lang, Latin Template:Lang, German Template:Lang, Dutch Template:Lang, Esperanto kioma or Chinese 第幾. Further examples derive from the fact that English has fewer tenses than Romance languages. As in Latin, Italian has for example two distinct declined past tenses, where Template:Lang (Template:Lang) and Template:Lang (Template:Lang) 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 "Template:Lang" is often used for narrative history (for example novels). The difference is nowadays also partly geographic. In the north of Italy (and standard Italian) the "Template:Lang" is rarely used in spoken language, whereas in the south it often takes the place of the "Template:Lang".

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 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),
  • 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
Traktori vetää. A tractor pulls. pulls
Ajomies vedättää. A driver operates the tractor causes something to pull
Urakoitsija vedätyttää. A subcontractor directs the driver to pull with his tractor. causes someone to cause something to pull
Ja firma vedätätyttää. The corporation assigns the subcontractor to have the driver operate to pull with his tractor. causes someone to cause someone to cause something to pull

Another instance is the Russian word Template:Lang /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.

Another well-known example comes from the Portuguese or Spanish verbs Template:Lang and Template:Lang, both translatable as to be (see Romance copula). However, Template:Lang is used only with essence or nature, while Template:Lang 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:

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 just look handsome; I am handsome."

Ancient Greek Template:Polytonic (phthánō), generally accompanied by a complementary verb, approximately translates "I do [something] before someone else realises that I'm doing it" or "I get away with [doing something]." In a similar vein, the syntactically equivalent verb Template:Polytonic (lanthanō, etymon of the chemical element lanthanum), conveys the meaning of escaping the notice of others while doing something, and is often unsatisfactorily rendered by the adverb "secretly".

German, especially colloquial German, has a wealth of modal particles that are particularly difficult to translate as they do not only have a grammatical function, but rather convey a sense in which the message is meant to be understood. The most infamous example perhaps is doch, which roughly means "don't you realize that...?", or "in fact it is so, though someone is denying it". Others are eben (roughly: "in a natural way and without much afterthought", or, just as roughly "That's what I said all along."), or even mal (from einmal, roughly meaning "when it's convenient"). What makes translation of such words more difficult is the fact that they take on different meanings depending on how they are used; sometimes the meaning can only be derived from the intonation or the context. Once the entire sentence is understood; however, it is often possible to find analogous words of phrases in English: for example doch in the sentence Kommen sie doch mal her, bitte almost exactly translates to why don't you come here for a second, please?. In this case, there is no better translation for the word mal than for a second, for a minute or for a moment, etc. (depending on the tone of the text). Another common use of the word doch can be found in the sentence der Krieg war doch noch nicht verloren, which translates to the war wasn't lost yet, after all. These simple examples illustrate how a seemingly difficult word can be translated easily into its English equivalent if its meaning is well understood; 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). And a use which relies heavily on intonation (and context, of course) 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 lost (back then)?".

The word eben as an expression spoken by itself usually means exactly, when someone is reaffirming someone else's (to the speaker) seemingly obvious observation, for example: "we're going to have to build a bridge across the river in order to get our heavy equipment across." — "(My words) exactly." Although the phrase can be circumscribed with "that's what I've been telling you" or "you just made my point", it is usually possible to find a more fitting term in English which would be used in the same situation; the "untranslatable" word can thereby be translated into a single, equivalent word in the target language, even though the translation only applies to a particular situation; in a different context, another English construct may have to be employed. Luckily, the English language offers a wealth of such modifiers, which annotate a phrase to convey how it is meant to be understood, often relying merely on word order and/or the insertion of a single word or phrase.

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. Also, Chinese has specific words for "older brother", "maternal grandfather" etc. 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" (Template:Lang) is used, as in "We are in the house". And in most other cases, the verb "shì" (Template:Lang) is used, as in "I am the leader." Any sentence that requires a play on those different meanings will not work in Chinese.

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) with Ná caitear tobac, which is best translated as "Smoking just isn't done here".

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 — consider the Italian adage 'traduttore, traditore': a literal translation is 'translator, traitor'. The pun is lost, though the meaning persists.

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.)

The Asterix comic strip is renowned for its French puns; its translators have found many ingenious English substitutes.

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 Template:Lang — 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 Carrol, with its wealth of neologisms and portmanteau words, into a number of foreign tongues.

Foreign objects

Objects unknown to a culture can actually be easy to translate. For example, in Japanese, wasabi Template:Lang 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 Brazil (for example) would have a clear understanding of it. However, the easiest way to translate this word is to borrow it. Or you 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, Template:Lang (pinyin: shān kúi). However, wasabi is currently called 芥末 (jiè mò) or 绿芥 (lǜ jiè) in China and by the phonetic 味沙吡 (weishabi) in 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.

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 White House, 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 Dennis Thatcher, but he probably would not have relished the title.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Untranslatability" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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