By MICHAEL CAINES
After the translation prizes, the angels of translation and IKEA’s “fluency” in thirty-one languages, it may be almost a relief to find that there are plenty of words people claim to be untranslatable. Untranslatable in a like-for-like, one-word-for-another way, that is; it seems that the idea behind the word can usually be explained with easy, Johnsonian concision.
For example – have a guess at the meanings of these words, their definitions, and which languages they belong to:
Cwtch (the third one on this list)
Komorebi (fourth paragraph . . .)
Qualanquismo (the fourth one down)
Zhaghzhagh (the eighth one down)
If you scored five out of five, and as you’re reading this in English, congratulations – you’re more multilingual than Mario Vargas Llosa. And you have a very interesting and varied family background.
A complement to the helpful online collections for untranslatability from which these words are gathered comes courtesy of sometime TLS contributor Ollie Brock, who is currently a translator in residence at the Free Word Centre (on Farringdon Road, around the corner from the old TLS HQ). An edited version of the first event in a series on a theme of translation, Migration Stories, which I attended, is now available as a podcast. (See the embed above. Press play. Hear the poet Maria Jastrzebska revel in the excitement of the untranslatable! Marvel at the idea of growing up in Ghana, which speaks, “unofficially”, sixty-seven languages! Gasp as Sofia Buchuk permits us to glimpse the Quechuan spiritual world of her grandmother! etc.)
It was a good discussion, although it’s interesting to hear at the end of all this that Ollie Brock himself “doesn’t really believe in the idea of untranslatability”, despite some of his guests’ apparent delight at the irreconcilable differences between languages; that sounds like it might be the necessary attitude for a professional translator.