Non-translators, it seems, are forever fascinated by this notion of the untranslatable word. There are web sites dedicated to listing words that just won’t cross linguistic or cultural boundaries. And then, recently, this article in The Guardian came out claiming to debunk the notion entirely. In “12 untranslatable words (and their translations),” David Shariatmadari sets out to show how “silly” and “romantic” a love for the untranslatable is.
While I don’t think he accomplishes his task, I commend the effort. He fails mostly because he tries to attack his enemy head on, when any of us who work with words know translation is much more of a dance than a fight. And so, when Shariatmadari says that he’s found the one-word translation for words such as the Portuguese saudade, the Czech lítost or the German schnapsidee, I’d say he’s reaching. In part because these are words plucked from their context. And that’s not translation.
But when he ends the article claiming that “no word is completely untranslatable, but then no word is precisely translatable either,” I have to agree.
I bring this up here because I have untranslatability on my mind. We’re launching a new blog at M-Dash and we’ll be filling it with several regular features, including one we’ve named—and not without some trepidation—“The (Un)Translatables.” It will feature stories from working translators about a particular word or phrase they’ve struggled to translate and the solution—or compromise—they finally landed on.
M-Blog, as we’ll be calling our blog, will also include occasional excerpts from translations by contributors and readers as well as another regular series called “Origin Stories” in which we ask translators to share their stories of discovering literary translation as a vocation—or as a beloved hobby.
In other words, we’re about to start blogging a lot. And we hope some of you will join in on the conversation. If you have ideas or contributions for any of these new sections, feel free to write us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or if a particular post moves, angers or otherwise engages you, comment away. We welcome your voices.