Untranslatable Words and the Significant Role of Professional Translators

  • 04/03/2019
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Untranslatable Words and the Significant Role of Professional Translators

Have you ever used the phrase “Bon Appetit” when speaking English even though it’s an expression in French? Or has a similar event happened to you with any other word or sentence in a different language?

If you are familiar with the world of linguistics and its complexity, you have likely encountered words that you wish existed in another language. These are “untranslatable words”, but what does it really mean when a word it’s labelled as “untranslatable” and what are their cultural implications?

In simple terms, it means that there isn't a single word in another language that can precisely convey the same concept. All words can be translated, but challenges arise when a broader range of words is needed to express what a single word in another language can accomplish.


What are the cultural implications of this?

The creation of words is linked to humanity’s need to describe the world around us. For instance, it’s not surprising that many foods worldwide have only received a name in the region where they are consumed. As an example, a Latin American food called “cherimoya” is known by the same name in other languages because encountering a cherimoya outside a Spanish-speaking country is exceedingly rare. If a word isn't required, it simply won't be created.

Following this pattern, it’s possible to understand more about a region’s culture by some of its untranslatable words. In French, "Dérive" describes the act of aimlessly wandering through a city or urban environment without a predetermined destination. French also features a similar word, "Flânerie," which embodies a form of casual exploration encouraging reflection, daydreaming, and a deep connection to urban surroundings.

Words like these convey hidden cultural messages. We might infer that there's a high level of urban accessibility in France, and that French people appreciate taking time to savour the nuances of their cities.

In another example, we could take the term "Mbuki-mvuki", which translates to taking off your clothes as you dance – or to liberate yourself from your clothes to dance more freely.

This term comes from the Bantu languages, and it is mainly used in the Congo region. We could conclude that there is a strong culture for dancing in those communities, and we could even pick up from the term that the weather is too hot that people often feel the need of taking off their clothes to be able to keep doing physical activity without feeling torturously warm.


The crucial role of professional translators

At Vandu Languages, we specialise in translation, interpreting and bilingual advocacy services. We recognise the importance of translating concepts without losing their original essence and the repercussions of failing this process.

Professional translators possess unique skills that set them apart from regular individuals attempting translation. Fluency in multiple languages is just the starting point. Translators have a deep understanding of linguistic nuances, context, tone, and culturally rich words. They don’t only act on the literal meanings of words but also the implied meanings, cultural subtexts, and historical connotations.

Additionally, it is crucial for translation agencies to conduct proofreading methods, where multiple individuals review, edit, and correct translated documents. This process ensures that difficult words to translate maintain their original meaning while being concise and tailored to their target audiences.


What about automated translation tools?

Language is a complex and dynamic system that continually evolves, influenced by cultural shifts, historical events, and social changes. Automated translation tools often struggle to keep up with these complexities.

While technology has made significant improvements, it lacks the ability to fully comprehend context, emotions, and untranslatable words. Literal translations might be accurate in a basic sense, but they often miss the depth and cultural context that human translators naturally identify.

Relying solely on automation risks misunderstandings, misinterpretations, or even conveying unintended offensive messages, emphasising the critical role of professional human translators.


Some examples of untranslatable words.

By this point, we hope that you comprehend why the role of translators extends far beyond using a dictionary. Businesses, organisations, individuals, and professionals across various industries, such as healthcare, marketing, legal, government services, social care, website development, and more, require translation experts to access global markets successfully.

Here is a list of intriguing untranslatable words from different languages:

"Pålegg" (Norwegian): It refers to the collective term for anything you can put on a slice of bread, such as butter, cheese, cold cuts, spreads, and even jam.

"Gigil" (Tagalog, Philippines): It's the overwhelming urge to pinch or squeeze something incredibly cute simply because it's so cute that you can't resist.

"Shemomedjamo" (Georgian): It's the feeling of eating for the sheer pleasure of it, even when you're not hungry, only because the food is delicious.

"Ya'aburnee" (Arabic): This word expresses a deep, selfless love and affection for someone to the extent that you hope that you won't have to live without them.

"Desenrascanço" (Portuguese): This term refers to the ability to improvise or find a creative solution to a problem in a resourceful and crafty way.

"Tsundoku" (Japanese): This word describes the habit of acquiring books and letting them pile up, unread.


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