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Infamously “Untranslatable”

During the process of localizing a text, unforeseen events may arise that imply an extra effort on the part of the translation team; from technical or specific vocabulary, to terms with different meanings or connotations in other languages. Nothing that a little research and dedication can’t solve. Many glossaries, term bases and style guides are also available for each project, which makes the work much easier.

But there are certain idiomatic nuances that can turn a translation into a real challenge, even to the point that it feels like mission impossible. These texts are infamously “untranslatable” and can lead to some serious translator “writers block,” especially if the text must also be prepared for internationalization.

One of these challenges is rhymes in poems, sayings and songs. Of course, one option is to use a literal translation of these types of texts, thus losing the harmony of the rhymes and surely all the emotion and art of the text. Equivalent words may be researched in order to force the words to rhyme as they do in the original text, but the most likely case is that the meaning and spirit of the author will be lost. All you have to do is look up the translation of your favorite song or poem. It’s just not the same.

If you want to get really complicated, you can try and translate puns, which, some argue, can never work in other languages. This is because puns are a “play on words”; they are normally based on words that may have different meanings in different languages. Even simple jokes fail to overcome the barrier of translation: “I’m on a seafood diet. Every time I see food, I eat it!” The homophones “sea” and “see” cannot be translated into another language, pretty instantly killing the joke. Another example would be a government warning advertisement that says: “Want to sell cigarettes to children? Fine!” That “fine” sounds like “okay!” When in fact it speaks of the fine with which the offender will be punished.

Idiomatic expressions can also be a headache, but luckily sometimes there are equivalents, even if they use other words. For example, me estás tomando el pelo (you’re pulling my hair) and “you’re pulling my leg” refer to the same idea, only one pulls your hair, and the other pulls your leg. Another example is quand les poules auront des dents (when chickens have teeth) and “when pigs fly.” In both cases, the idea is totally lost when translated literally.

This isn’t a reason to give up before we even start. As mentioned before, in several cases you can look for similar options in other languages ​​and thus retain at least part of the original charm of a text. If you have any doubts or questions about this type of linguistic challenge, do not hesitate to contact us for quality advice.