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). [Read more…]