The significance of ‘untranslatable’ words


Tim Lomas writes: [‘untranslatable’] words exert great fascination, not only in specialised fields like linguistics or anthropology (Wierzbicka, 1999), but also in popular culture. Part of the fascination seems to derive from the notion that such words offer ‘windows’ into other cultures, and thus potentially into new ways of being in the world. As Wierzbicka (1997, p. 5) puts it, ‘words with special, culture-specific meanings reflect and pass on not only ways of living characteristic of a given society, but also ways of thinking’. Thus, ‘untranslatable’ words are not only of interest to translators; after all, many such professionals argue that it can be difficult to find exact translations for most words, and that nearly all terms lose some specificity or nuance when rendered in another tongue (Hatim & Munday, 2004). Rather, ‘untranslatability’ reflects the notion that such words identify phenomena that have only been recognised by specific cultures. Perhaps the most famous example is Schadenfreude, a German term describing pleasure at the misfortunes of others. Such words are not literally untranslatable, of course, since their meaning can be conveyed in a sentence. Rather, they are deemed ‘untranslatable’ to the extent that other languages lack a single word/phrase for the phenomenon.

The significance of such words is much debated. A dominant theoretical notion here is ‘linguistic relativity’ (Hussein, 2012). First formulated by the German philosophers Herder (1744–1803) and Humboldt (1767–1835), it came to prominence with the linguist Sapir (1929) and his student Whorf (1940). Their so-called ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ holds that language plays a constitutive role in the way that people experience, understand and even perceive the world. As Whorf (1956, pp. 213–214) put it, ‘We dissect nature along lines laid out by our native languages … The world is presented as a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized … largely by the linguistic systems in our minds’. This hypothesis comes in various strengths. Its stronger form is linguistic determinism, where language inextricably constitutes and constrains thought. For instance, Whorf argued that the Hopi people had a different experience of time due to particularities in their grammar, such that they lacked a linear sense of past, present and future. This strong determinism has been criticised, e.g. by Pinker (1995), who argued that the Hopi experience of time was not particularly different to that of Western cultures. However, the milder form of the hypothesis, linguistic relativism, simply holds that language shapes thought and experience. This milder hypothesis is generally accepted by most anthropologists and other such scholars (Perlovsky, 2009).

A similar debate pertains specifically to ‘untranslatable’ words. A strong deterministic view argues that unless a person is enmeshed within the culture that produced a given word, he or she would be unable to understand or experience the phenomenon that the word refers to. Such a view is associated with the philosopher Charles Taylor (1985), who argued that there is no way out of the ‘hermeneutic circle’, in which concepts can only be understood with reference to other concepts within that language. As Taylor put it,

We can often experience what it is like to be on the outside [of the circle] when we encounter the feeling, action, and experiential meaning language of another civilization. Here there is no translation, no way of explaining in other, more accessible concepts. (pp. 23–24)

However, articulating a milder relativistic view, Wierzbicka (1999) suggests we can indeed escape the hermeneutic circle and get a feel for what ‘untranslatable’ words refer to. Wierzbicka does acknowledge that people not emic to a particular culture may not appreciate the full nuanced richness of a term compared to people who are ‘inside’ the culture. As she puts it, ‘verbal explanations of such concepts cannot replace experiential familiarity with them and with their functioning in the local “stream of life,”’ (p. 8), to use Wittgenstein’s (1990) telling phrase. However, Wierzbicka argues that ‘it is not true that no verbal explanations illuminating to outsiders are possible at all’, since most culture-specific concepts are complex constructs that can be de-composed into simpler elements that are universally understood (p. 8).

If Wierzbicka’s perspective is correct, then encountering ‘untranslatable’ words has the potential to enrich one’s conceptual vocabulary. (Of course, if incorrect, such an exercise would still have the valuable outcome of increasing one’s understanding of other cultures.) If applied to well-being specifically, as in this paper, such an exercise may enrich our emotional landscape, as suggested by Perlovsky’s (2009) ‘emotional Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’. The existence of ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to well-being implies that there are positive emotional states which have hitherto only been explicitly recognised by particular cultures. [Continue reading…]

Lomas has constructed a lexicography of positive terms among which the following words appear under the heading “love”:

Forelsket (Norwegian): the act/feeling of falling in love.
Ishq (عشق) (Arabic): true, all-consuming love.
Jeong/jung” (정) (Korean): deep affection, affinity or connectedness that may or may not be accompanied by romantic love.
Koi no yukan (恋の予感) (Japanese): the feeling on meeting someone that falling in love will be inevitable.
Кохаю (кохать) (Ukranian): passionate, intimate, romantic love.
Naz (ناز) (Urdu): assurance/pride in knowing that the other’s love is unconditional and unshakable.
Onsra (Boro): ‘to love for the last time,’ the feeling that love won’t last.
Razljubít (разлюбить) (Russian): the feeling a person has for someone they once loved.
Sarang (사랑) (Korean): lifelong love, the wish to be with someone until death.
Ya’burnee (يقبرني) (Arabic): lifelone love, ‘you bury me,’ i.e., one would rather die than lose the other.
Yuán fèn (緣分) (Chinese): a ‘binding force’ that impels a relationship ordained by destiny.

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