> Date: Wed, 17 Oct 2012 12:04:18 +0000
> From: [log in to unmask]
> Subject: Re: "Untranslatable words"
> To: [log in to unmask]

> > Well, maybe.... Here's an amusing item from today's Huffington Post:

> >

> > 8. "Lítost is an untranslatable Czech word. ... I have looked in vain in
> > other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine
> > how anyone can understand the human soul without it"
> > Some describe it as a combination of grief, sympathy, remorse, and longing

> I see no reason why it could not be simply translated as "pity".
> "Je mi líto" (like German "Es tut mir Leid") means "I'm sorry".

Well, forgive me, but "pity" does not evoke the plaintive wails of an abandoned dog, and if the word (as signifiant, not signifié) were to fall out of the language, the English-speaking human soul would be no worse for the wear.

I should think the reason why words are "untranslatable" and why you "lose *so* much in translation" is that people want to bring *all* the connotative baggage along with them, and sometimes, you just have to leave that third dinner jacket at home when you go on a cruise.

There's the "why don't you just translate it as 'X' and have done with it?" argument which you've invoked above. Well, it works and it doesn't. To wit, I now get a German TV channel. One of the things I've noticed as an outsider looking in is a preponderence of the word "genau" in conversation. Now, why don't I just translate that as "exactly" or "absolutely" and have done with it? Well, sure. But I don't pepper my English conversation with "exactly" in this way -- it's too much. "Genau" feels stronger than an affirmative "Mm hm." "You said it." is too colloquial. Maybe akin to Japanese "hai"? (but you don't have to bow and genuflect when you say "genau") Whatever. My point is that there is no "*exact*" translation here. Translation has become "impossible" to the extent that I can't hit with pinpoint accuracy in English where on the continuum "genau" falls in acknowledging, understanding, and agreeing with my conversational partner; I can come close, certainly, but it's an approximation. If past experience is anything to go by, I can tell you that if I lived in Germany for longer than about twenty minutes, I would assimilate and internalize this perceived usage and incorporate it, rightly or wrongly, into my German. It would then spill over into my English conversation with like-minded anglophone expats whereupon I would carry this verbal tick back with me to the US to the chagrin of those who knew me until it finally phased out of my repertoire, mostly if not entirely. Which brings me to...

Then there's the "why don't you just bring the foreign word whole-hog into the translation and call it a day?" argument which was raised earlier in the thread.  Again, it works and it doesn't. As Eugene pointed out, translating Chinese "mantou" with English "bun" is misleading in either direction. "Steamed bun" gets you a little closer although I still find that rather opaque in English if I didn't already know what a "mantou" was. Often writers who want to give you a scratch-n-sniff sense of China in English resort to longer explanatory accounts ŕ la: "I always slavered and clapped my hands with joy when Auntie Lin brought me a piping hot bowl of yummy sweet glutinous rice balls." Well, I don't know about you, but that sounds about as appetizing as a warm bowl of damp socks. Call 'em "tangyuan", and we're on to something. So in the expat community, there is a tendency even among those who speak no Chinese to import Chinese words into English, particularly for foodstuffs, but other things, too: "Dewd, you really need to air out your beizi. It's getting a little ripe." "I know, but it's the rainy season. Will we *ever* see the sun again?" (Call a "beizi" a "quilt", and I whip up an image of patchwork, 'bees', eiderdown, crisp late autumn mornings in Maine, *not* a slab of batting wrapped in brightly colored silk and white cotton that weighs a short ton if it gets even a hint of moisture in it). And it works in the monde clos of an expat community because everyone knows what everyone is talking about. Take it home with you, though, where the shorthand isn't there (and you could be coming home from *any*where), and if you have too many ausgezeichnet's, saudade's, jambo's or jiaozi's in your verbal quiver, it begins to sound like an effete affectation (for that matter, coming back to the US from your sojourn in the UK saying that everything was "brilliant" and ending every utterance with a tag question would probably wear rather thin rather fast). 

On the literary front, you have to be a little more sparing in this tactic. Apparently, they chose to import "lítost" as is, which is nice, I guess. It lends an air of Czech opacity to the proceedings, nods to Mr. Kundera's concern for his wailing dog and plumbing the depths of the human psyche, and lets the reader feel he's not getting a watered-down "Reader's Digest" English translation. But how often can you go to the "there's just no exact word for this in Language X" well without it looking like lazy or sloppy translation? How much you writhe in translation angst about "hygge", "Gemütlichkeit", "saudade", or "wabisabi" depends, I suppose, on how big a pain in the ass diva you want to be about it. Do you hunker down with naggingly unsatisfying approximations ("genau" is "exactly"/"líto" is "pity"; get on with your life, already)? Do you throw up your hands and plunk in the native word with a three-paragraph annotation in the back (a "baozi" is a dumpling filled with meat and/or vegetables, usually steamed in stackable bamboo steamers, not to be confused with "jiaozi", which, although often translated into English as "Chinese ravioli", is actually a misnommer because...)? Do you pace endlessly with the espresso-and-cigarette induced frenzy of an artiste, lamenting the lack of a word for a concept in the target language (which is how I envisioned Mr. Kundera in this instance)? Mr. Kundera seems reluctant to give up the reins until the last minute. Which brings me to...

*And* if you buy into the notion that an author eventually has to give up his/her *author*ity over a text to the reader and/or translator, that (even when monoglots write for monoglots) no two people ever read the same book and/or that one person never reads the same book twice, it's nothing short of miraculous that anyone manages to get out of bed to write anything at all, let alone try their hand at translation. I suppose some writers absolutely revel in that relinquishing of control and seeing what happens while others simply can't stand it ("No, no, no! What you're *supposed* to understand here is...").