Sense and Untranslatability

Translators need to have different tools at their disposal whenever they encounter difficult-to-impossible terms to translate into the target language. We often face a few challenges during the translation process, especially when dealing with literary translations. Technical and legal documents are straightforward as far as terminology is concerned. There are also more widely accepted reference glossaries and termbases to help us out. Still, there might be some issues when localizing terms for the various options that, for example, the Spanish language has; but, overall, there are not many bumps on the road that could make the terminology translation task an unbearable burden. However, some domains can make that task difficult, as we encounter untranslatable terms. Untranslatability is the quality a text has of having a term or word that has no match or equivalent in the target language. Nevertheless, do not worry, because there a few tricks up our sleeve that can help save the day.

One option is to adapt the text in our target language. With this resource, a translator has the freedom to look for an equivalent expression based on cultural references that normally are restricted or limited to the target audience. This is commonly used when dealing with adaptations of literary works such as novels and comics, as well as cartoons and animated movies. This resource not only applies to language A to B translations, but also as a localization tool. It is commonly used for both text and images (examples are seen in cartoon movies as well as advertising, where products are made based on consumer preferences). Something as simple as asking for Diet Coke in the US or the UK becomes asking for Coca Cola Light in Latin America. Of course, this resource is not only used when facing an untranslatable term, but also to make the target more appealing to the target audience.

Another option is to borrow terms from the source language (also known as loan words) and use them in the target text unchanged. In terms of technology, Spanish borrows a great deal of words from English (such as phishing, firewall, software, etc., as well as cultural-reference terms such as rock, punk, etc.). English has also borrowed its fair share of words. Examples of this are doppelganger (originally doppelgänger), kindergarten and poltergeist, which were borrowed from German.

Should any of the latter options fail, we can always rely on calque. This consists of doing a word-for-word translation, or breaking down the term or expression into single pieces and then attempt to translate them. When dealing with ambiguity in a source text, this may be a good resource for sticking to the original as much as possible.

When our attempt is not good enough, or our target language will not allow it, we have to resort to compensation. This is by no means a lacking on our part, but sometimes, we need to add an extra word or noun to be able to provide meaning to the fullest to our translation. For example, English, known for its neutralism, requires compensation when translating from Spanish. Let us take a simple look: the case of pronouns. Spanish (as a few other languages do) has several forms for plural pronouns (tú/usted, vosotros/ustedes). When translating into English, we might need to compensate by adding additional words, e.g, “Para ustedes” becomes “For you all.”

Last, we have another useful resource when encountering difficult terms. Paraphrasing is a technique by which we replace the source term with either an expression or a group of words. This is common in translations from German into English, as the Teutons seem to have a word for everything and more often than not, they have to be translated with full expressions or concepts in English. One example could be the verb der Weltschmerz which, according to Webster’s dictionary means a “Sentimental pessimism or melancholy over the state of the world.” The way our world is today, there is plenty of Weltschmerz to go around.

In summary, and for all of your purchasing translation services, beware linguists may need to choose one or the other way. In other words, be ready to be more flexible and trust your provider’s best judgement.

For you, linguists facing the challenge of “untranslatability,” next time you are stuck on a word that seems to have no match in your target, bear in mind these few tips that may come in handy.