When asked to contribute some thoughts on untranslatability with particular reference to Swedish words, I had to ask myself whether I believed in untranslatability—and that is related to the question of whether I believe in translatability. Translation and language(s) have been a lifelong passion and a career for me, so it would be awkward and disheartening to have to admit that the task of translation was inherently impossible and that most of my efforts had been the equivalent of tilting at windmills.
Bronislaw Malinowski, the Polish-British anthropologist of the early 20th century (1884–1942), warned about the difficulties, even the impossibility of translation across cultures that are markedly different—in other words, can we “translate” a word or expression for a concept into another language if the target language doesn’t have the concept? At best, he thought, we simply reproduce the native (source language) word and footnote it, essentially a borrowing (such as when we say Weltanschaung rather than rendering the German word into English), or we resort to a calque (where you translate each part of the word: “world view”) or paraphrase (“view of the world”).
I would temper Malinowski’s caveat by saying that a translation is a communication in a certain context with the particular requirements of that context. It’s not clear how fully people have to understand each other for fairly effective communication to exist. Even people speaking the same language often don’t understand fully what the other is saying, and yet there is communication and much of it is based on a more or less correct understanding of the other’s meaning. So translatability depends to a great extent on what you ask of your translation in the particular communication context.
In his comments on German (The Awful German Language, 1880), Mark Twain produced the jaw-breaking example of Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen, which he fortunately explains means something like “meetings of the legislature.” Here we run into another sort of problem. German has different rules for word formation from ours. It easily and prodigiously builds compound nouns, which inevitably have multi-word translations in other languages, if indeed translations can be found at all. So if “translatable” means that a word must have a one-word translation in the target language, the criterion is too strict and probably indefensible in practice. After all, the fact that the French say regarder and we say look at doesn’t qualify regarder as untranslatable.
When is a wall not a wall?
Another kind of problem comes up when the source language’s word is more general and the possible target language words are more specific. The famous Russian-born linguist Roman Jakobson (1896–1982) pointed out that languages differ less in what they can express than in what they must express. Nouns in Romance (descended from Latin) languages have to have a grammatical gender (in French, for example, le livre, which is masculine, means “book,” while la livre, feminine, means “pound”), but English is quite indifferent to such a requirement. Another example of English indifference or non-specificity would be the English word wall, which in Spanish could be muro or pared, depending on whether the wall in question is outside (the wall of a house or town) or inside (the wall of a room). In order to make the right choice of Spanish word to translate the sentence “He leaned against the wall,” you need more information; you have to go beyond the sentence and look at the larger context. In a sentence like “He hung the painting back on the wall,” knowledge of the real world (how things happen in real life, in this case where people normally hang paintings) helps. But, to do a proper job of translating into Spanish, you have to make the choice between muro and pared; there is no word that covers both possibilities. Kinship terms are another set of lexical items where languages differ markedly in their specificity.
Don’t call me from your yuppie teddybear when you’re driving your city jeep!
But I digress. I was supposed to bring up some Swedish examples. Well, Swedish has the word allemansrätten (literally, “everyone’s right”), which is one of those Germanic-type compound nouns describing the right of all to make fair use of woods, lakes, beaches, etc., whether or not they are privately owned. There is a cultural gap problem in translation, since we don’t have such a law, although we can understand the concept and describe it. Here, paraphrase is probably our best translation option.
Ombudsman is another compound (literally, “representative man”) that was hard to translate, but it has now come into English as a borrowing, especially once we adopted the institution or function itself. We embraced both the concept—thus filling the cultural gap—and the Swedish term.
Lagom is an often cited, hard-to-translate word that means “just right,” “just enough,” “neither too much or too little,” and so forth. We don’t have a single word that covers all the possibilities, but translations can be found that do the job in each instance. Similarly, the English word nice is hard to translate; it has acquired a very wide range of meanings since it started its life in early English as the Latin nescius (literally, “not knowing”). Translation into other languages requires study of the context, but ultimately the word is translatable.
Swedish has also imported many concepts and some words from other languages, mostly English, and the Swedish choice of an appropriate term for those concepts or objects can be amusing to English speakers. For example, the word for a sports utility vehicle or SUV in Swedish translates as “city jeep,” while one of the Swedish words for cell phone is yuppienalle—literally a “yuppie teddybear.”
Like Jacob and the angel
So, despite all the perils of our trade, including the perhaps unjustified presumptions that what we’re doing is both possible and worthwhile, translators slog on, wrestling with language like Jacob and the angel, trying not to be too fazed by the abyss that others keep pointing out.