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Fri Aug 23, 2013, 01:28 PM

11 Untranslatable Words From Other Cultures

The relationship between words and their meaning is a fascinating one, and linguists have spent countless years deconstructing it, taking it apart letter by letter, and trying to figure out why there are so many feelings and ideas that we cannot even put words to, and that our languages cannot identify.

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The idea that words cannot always say everything has been written about extensively — as Friedrich Nietzsche said, "Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon the absolute truth."

No doubt the best book we’ve read that covers the subject is ‘Through The Language Glass’ by Guy Deutscher, which goes a long way to explaining and understanding these loopholes — the gaps which mean there are leftover words without translations, and concepts that cannot be properly explained across cultures.

Somehow narrowing it down to just a handful, we’ve illustrated 11 of these wonderful, untranslatable, if slightly elusive, words. We will definitely be trying to incorporate a few of them into our everyday conversations, and hope that you enjoy recognising a feeling or two of your own among them.

https://medium.com/writers-on-writing/94ec1b9f5741

Aside from the above Bush is alleged to have said "the problem with the French is they have no word for entrepreneur"

Entrepreneur is a French word for which there is no known translation. Snopes dismisses this but what do they know.

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Arrow 28 replies Author Time Post
Reply 11 Untranslatable Words From Other Cultures (Original post)
dipsydoodle Aug 2013 OP
shenmue Aug 2013 #1
Bay Boy Aug 2013 #2
boomer55 Aug 2013 #3
Warpy Aug 2013 #4
bananas Aug 2013 #19
marybourg Jan 2014 #28
Rozlee Aug 2013 #5
kristopher Aug 2013 #6
dipsydoodle Aug 2013 #7
kristopher Aug 2013 #8
dipsydoodle Aug 2013 #9
kristopher Aug 2013 #10
Thor_MN Aug 2013 #13
bananas Aug 2013 #18
kristopher Aug 2013 #22
bananas Aug 2013 #21
kristopher Aug 2013 #23
xocet Aug 2013 #11
dipsydoodle Aug 2013 #12
xocet Aug 2013 #14
Igel Aug 2013 #16
xocet Jan 2014 #24
davidpdx Aug 2013 #15
bananas Aug 2013 #17
raccoon Aug 2013 #20
RainDog Jan 2014 #25
longship Jan 2014 #26
Warpy Jan 2014 #27

Response to dipsydoodle (Original post)

Fri Aug 23, 2013, 01:33 PM

1. Awwww

That's funny.

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Response to dipsydoodle (Original post)

Fri Aug 23, 2013, 01:44 PM

2. My wife was admiring an impressive mangata just last night...

...it really was spectacular if I say so myself.

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Response to dipsydoodle (Original post)

Fri Aug 23, 2013, 01:51 PM

3. I grok that. n/t

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Response to dipsydoodle (Original post)

Fri Aug 23, 2013, 02:31 PM

4. #9 is my word for the day

only I don't feel like I'm in a foreign country; most of the time I feel like I've landed on an alien planet.

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Response to Warpy (Reply #4)

Sun Aug 25, 2013, 08:15 AM

19. Do you feel like "A Stranger In A Strange Land"?

I wouldn't have thought of that if someone hadn't mentioned "grok".

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Response to Warpy (Reply #4)

Wed Jan 22, 2014, 05:29 PM

28. We felt the same way

When *we* lived in N.M.

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Response to dipsydoodle (Original post)

Fri Aug 23, 2013, 02:40 PM

5. There is a translation for #5.

Annoying.

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Response to dipsydoodle (Original post)

Fri Aug 23, 2013, 04:51 PM

6. I don't get it.

The list of words is accompanied by translations. Is the idea supposed to be that there isn't a single English word that exactly corresponds to each of the words? If so, the list is probably in the tens, if not hundreds of thousands.

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Response to kristopher (Reply #6)

Fri Aug 23, 2013, 05:02 PM

7. Descriptions - not translations.

.

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Response to dipsydoodle (Reply #7)

Fri Aug 23, 2013, 05:12 PM

8. That's what translation is.

You translate a meaning from one set of utterances to another.

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Response to kristopher (Reply #8)

Fri Aug 23, 2013, 05:20 PM

9. Yes but these are single words.

If you think its that simply then by all means list out alternative single words to match them.

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Response to dipsydoodle (Reply #9)

Fri Aug 23, 2013, 05:30 PM

10. I don't think it's simple at all - I've done it (Japanese-English) for pay

As I said when I started, if you are saying that because a word doesn't have one exactly corresponding English word it is "untranslatable" then there are a hell of a lot more than 11. The list across all languages is almost certainly in the hundreds of thousands.

Of course, no one actually defines translation that way - which is actually the point. I know of no concepts that can't be translated with a proper understanding of the two languages and cultures involved, and linguists are pretty much unified in the belief that this is true.

If it helps any I think the belief that some things are not able to be translated is a common one among people who haven't actually studied the topic, but it turns out to not be the case. I know that when I started studying linguistics (my minor) I thought culture separated our thinking far more than is the case - in fact I made quite a spectacle of myself in a public lecture by expressing that opinion to Noam Chomsky. He was very gentle in his correction, but my professor was less kind when we were alone.

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Response to kristopher (Reply #10)

Fri Aug 23, 2013, 07:55 PM

13. Where did they claim that there were only 11?

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Response to kristopher (Reply #10)

Sun Aug 25, 2013, 07:20 AM

18. Some concepts don't exist in other cultures.

I remember when I took a Buddhism class in college, the texts kept talking about the six senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, tough, and the sixth sense. They never translated the sixth sense, some translations used various transcriptions of the original word, some translated it as "the sixth sense" or "the other sense".

So I asked the teacher about this, the texts mention the sixth sense so non-chalantly as if it's commonly accepted in their culture, do they all really believe in ESP?

He tried unsuccessfully to explain it to me, it took me years before I understood what they were talking about. The concept really doesn't exist in American or English culture.

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Response to bananas (Reply #18)

Sun Aug 25, 2013, 02:08 PM

22. That doesn't mean it can't be translated

They are humans and their cognitive processes and physical referents (the way the body interacts with the environment) are the same as yours.

Your teacher couldn't explain it because he/she didn't understand it. That doesn't make it a untranslatable.

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Response to kristopher (Reply #10)

Sun Aug 25, 2013, 09:00 AM

21. "some translators simply leave this word untranslated due to its complex overtones"

Here's what I'm talking about - footnote 7:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayatana

<snip>

Buddhism and other Indian epistemologies identify six "senses" as opposed to the Western identification of five.

<snip>

7. ^ The Pāli word translated here as "mental objects" is dhammā. Other frequently seen translations include "mental phenomena" (e.g., Bodhi, 2000b, pp. 1135ff.), "thoughts," "ideas" (e.g., Thanissaro, 2001a) and "contents of the mind" (VRI, 1996, p. 39) while some translators simply leave this word untranslated due to its complex overtones in the Pali literature.

<snip>

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Response to bananas (Reply #21)

Sun Aug 25, 2013, 02:19 PM

23. There you have it.

The translation might be complex, but it able to be done.

Let's take a simpler example that swims the other way. You are driving a car in Japan, sitting at a stop light looking in the window of a store beside you. Your passenger suddenly says "ao" (blue) to you. You look at the person and they repeat "ao" to you. Seeing your look of puzzlement he points to the green light and says "ao" again.

There are wrinkles in the translation of even the most simple things. The part of the spectrum the Japanese identify as "midori" (green) is slightly different than what is common here.

When the concepts are abstract, it Often requires considerable explanation to make the meaning clear.

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Response to dipsydoodle (Reply #9)

Fri Aug 23, 2013, 06:33 PM

11. Pana po'o is not a single word - it might be a multiword expression (MWE)....

Here is a Hawaiian-English dictionary: http://www.trussel2.com/haw/haw-a.htm .

It is clear that pana po'o is constructed from multiple parts and thus is not a single word.


Here are some links related to studying multiword expressions:

The Stanford Multiword Expression Project: http://mwe.stanford.edu/

A chapter of a book on multiword expressions: http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F3-540-45715-1_1

A paper discussion multiword expressions: http://clseslli09.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/05_multiword_expressions.pdf

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Response to xocet (Reply #11)

Fri Aug 23, 2013, 07:17 PM

12. I missed that one.

Thanks.

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Response to dipsydoodle (Reply #12)

Sat Aug 24, 2013, 12:43 AM

14. No problem - I would not have known of that neat Hawaiian dictionary had I not read your post. n/t

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Response to dipsydoodle (Reply #12)

Sun Aug 25, 2013, 12:37 AM

16. Defining "word" can be tricky.

Waldeinsamkeit is a combination of words but also a word. It's perceived as a word because it's written that way, pronounced that way.

"Apple pie" is usually taken to be two words because it's spelled that way. But it's clearly pronounced as one word.

"The I-45 exit ramp gore strip paint is faded" has 4 words. Maybe. Perhaps 7. Perhaps 9. Depends how you define "word".

"Queen of England" is one word in some ways, and some pronounce it as one word. But if you look at where the 's for possessive goes, something we like to think applies to words, it's easy to get "The Queen of England's purse". Some people are okay with 's going after a phrase: "The man on the park bench's hat." Some aren't.

So the HI phrase might be lexicalized and perceived as a single word. It might not be.

Doesn't affect the translatability. Lots of things don't have a word-for-word correspondence even when just looking at strict denotations. Pitch in connotations and all bets are off.

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Response to Igel (Reply #16)

Wed Jan 22, 2014, 12:41 PM

24. Interesting post. I did not see this until today.

Yes, defining "word" can be tricky - I am not anywhere near an expert on linguistics (nor am I one), but a few questions come to mind.

Does one define a "word" as an entry in a dictionary or does one define a "word" as having existence in a lexicon? Is a language's lexicon the same thing as a dictionary of the language or is such a dictionary merely a subset of the language's lexicon? Is a lexicon an abstract aggregate of all possible lexemes in a language? Does one first have to define a language to define the lexicon of that language? Is language temporally restricted? If so, how restricted? Is Old English part of the lexicon of English? Many questions abound.

More specifically, though, and, out of curiosity, what is the phonetic difference between "apple pie" and the words "apple" and "pie" if they are pronounced individually:

It is an apple pie, because there is apple in the pie.


Does the IPA allow for the transcription of such a proposed phonetic difference?

I (approximately) "know" that some "two-word" names are shifted phonetically to "one-word" names through pronunciation: for example, Kansas City becomes Kansacity (in the local vernacular) when the pause between the words is eliminated. Is this the same type of process that you intend in your example?

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Response to dipsydoodle (Original post)

Sat Aug 24, 2013, 09:54 AM

15. There are words in Korean that are difficult to translate into English

Then there are the words that translate so well you wonder why you haven't been saying them in Korean your whole life. LOL

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Response to dipsydoodle (Original post)

Sun Aug 25, 2013, 06:44 AM

17. #12: ineffable

http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ineffable

Adjective

ineffable (not comparable)

1. Beyond expression in words; unspeakable.

1919, W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence, chapter 39

Stroeve was trying to express a feeling which he had never known before, and he did not know how to put it into common terms. He was like the mystic seeking to describe the ineffable.

Gay Watson, Stephen Batchelor, Guy Claxton, The Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, science, and our day-to-day lives (2000) p. 100:

As Alan Watts (1961) wrote, it involves trying to speak the unspeakable, scrute the inscrutable and eff the ineffable.




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Response to dipsydoodle (Original post)

Sun Aug 25, 2013, 08:30 AM

20. English should adopt #4 and #11. So poetic! nt

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Response to dipsydoodle (Original post)

Wed Jan 22, 2014, 03:42 PM

25. Dutch: gezellig

via wiki - Gezelligheid (Dutch pronunciation: ) is a Dutch abstract noun (adjective form gezellig) which, depending on context, can be translated as convivial, cosy, fun, quaint, or nice atmosphere, but can also connote belonging, time spent with loved ones, the fact of seeing a friend after a long absence, or general togetherness. The word is considered to be an example of untranslatability, and is one of the hardest words to translate to English. Some consider the word to encompass the heart of Dutch culture.

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Response to dipsydoodle (Original post)

Wed Jan 22, 2014, 04:09 PM

26. Sisu -- Finnish word

No exact translation.

Here's the Wiki: sisu

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Response to dipsydoodle (Original post)

Wed Jan 22, 2014, 04:11 PM

27. There are other massively useful words out there

My favorite is German, "backpfifengesicht." It so perfectly describes any right winger out there who has spoken or written another outrageous idiocy.

http://list25.com/25-words-languages-english/

My favorite is #18.

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