Do Untranslatable Words Exist?


Do Untranslatable Words Exist?

Anyone who has experienced multiple languages has encountered one phrase at least once: you just cannot translate that word. But is that true? Do untranslatable words exist, and if so, how can (and should) businesses and anyone interested in translation approach them?

As it turns out, this deceptively simple question has a surprisingly complex answer. 

Because, in truth, the answer is that they do exist—but also that they do not. Any examination of how to approach untranslatable words must begin with understanding what translation means in its broadest context, including the nuances that flow into any translation to tackle untranslatable words.

What are Untranslatable Words?

We will begin with a simple definition of what most people infer when they discuss so-called “untranslatable” words. As their name suggests, these words simply have no direct equivalent in a different language. Examples abound:

  • Feierabend describes the German concept of feeling calm and relaxed at the end of a workday. The term is similar to the English phrase and acronym TGIF but applicable to every day.
  • Jaysus is an Indonesian word that describes jokes so unfunny that they become funny again. The closest English equivalent may be “dad joke,” although Jaysus applies much more broadly.
  • Prozvonit describes the common Czech practice of calling someone but only letting the phone ring once, signaling that you are ready for a call-back at their most convenient time.
  • Goya is a common Urdu concept of storytelling being so powerful that even a fantastic or fictional story temporarily becomes reality for those listening. 
  • Saudade, a Portuguese term, describes a nostalgic yearning for something beautiful that is no longer accessible or attainable. 

Countless other examples exist. These terms are so standard that hundreds of articles describing their nuances in every language are available with only a quick internet search. In some cases, like the German Schadenfreude, these words have become so common that they have become part of the vocabulary in different languages.

Making the Case: Untranslatable Words Exist in Every Language

The case for untranslatable words existing is simple at its surface. Lists like the above show that for some terms, there simply is no equivalent in other languages. These words are, by definition, impossible to translate, which explains why some have become part of the vocabulary for multiple languages.

The more profound case for untranslatable words is that these translations do not exist because they should not exist. As author and linguist David Shariatmadari puts it,

There is something deeply seductive about the idea that other languages contain codes that are impossible to crack…Adults should know better than to believe that other cultures speak in spells. The concept of ‘untranslatable words’ preserves the idea that the world can never be fully mapped out and expunged of mystery. That’s a comforting thought.

In Shariatmadari’s words, untranslatable words indisputably connect the language with the culture from which it originates. To separate that language from its culture means reducing the word’s meaning to the point where the concept it describes becomes unrecognizable.

The German Feierabend literally translates to “celebration evening.” Goya becomes “as it were.” Both retain at least some level of meaning—but at the same time, their true deeper meaning, the feelings these words evoke in the minds of native readers, becomes utterly lost.

That, then, is the core case for untranslatable words. Because language and culture are forever connected, and because language is more than just its literal meaning, these words are specifically designed to be untranslatable. Understanding the language and its surrounding culture can unlock its most profound meaning.

Making the Case: Untranslatable Words in Translation are a Myth

Of course, plenty of literary experts have drawn the opposite conclusion from the same starting point. They argue that untranslatable words do not exist and the concept itself is a fallacy or myth. From the proper perspective, their argument can be just as persuasive.

We will again begin with the obvious, surface-level case. Even the argument above revealed that at least some translation exists for every word. It might not arrive at the most profound meaning of the word, but every translation can still get at least some of its meaning across. The Danish hygge may have many layers of meaning, but it all revolves around the core meaning of “cozy” that most experts will offer as a direct translation.

If that surface-level explanation is not enough, there is a deeper layer to this side of the argument.  Every word has an explanation; that translation may not consist of a single word to unlock its deeper meanings.

Again, the above list shows exactly how we can arrive at this argument. Saudade may not be translatable through a single English word, but it means “a nostalgic yearning for something beautiful that is no longer accessible or attainable.” A complex translation, but a translation nonetheless.

Within this argument, the very term “untranslatable” is a paradox. As long as you can describe the word in a different language, even if it takes an entire sentence, the word is, by definition, translatable. It simply has not been lexicalized, meaning an equivalent single word does not (or does not yet) exist in the language you are trying to translate.

Expanding the Concept of Translation to Remove Untranslatable Words

A close look at both sides of the argument reveals one surprising takeaway; they are not opposite sides of the debate. Instead, they merely differ in their interpretation of “untranslatable,” with the first group adhering more closely to the definition provided at the intro of this article and the second questioning the very existence or truth of that term.

The core truth of the argument, then, lies in where these two arguments overlap. They both almost necessarily conclude that translation means more than simply taking words and moving them one for one into a different language.

Put differently, translation is not a mechanical exercise that requires little more than a lexicon and some grammar skills in both languages. Suppose language is indeed connected to its surrounding culture. In that case, translation also requires a deep understanding of that culture to understand, connect, and translate the deeper meaning of source terms that have no lexicalized equivalent in the target translation.

This is why many translators refer to their craft as an art, not just a science. It is also the reason behind concepts like localization, which expands translation beyond the two languages in question. 

Just as localization requires an in-depth understanding of the culture into which you look to expand, translation requires an in-depth understanding of the culture surrounding the languages with which you work. A translator intimately familiar with Urdu and English cultures will know to take a term like Goya not literally but expand its scope to describe the feelings it evokes and set the stage to get its true meaning across in the English translation.

The existence of untranslatable words, or lack thereof, shows how vital expert translation can be for any type of content. Translation services that consider context and language are essential.