How To Look At Untranslatable Words

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It is one of these mythic beasts, the “untranslatables”, the foreign words that supposedly lack any equivalent in English. Lists like these spread like wildfire online. 

One such tiny word, that contains multitudes, is Goya. Urdu speakers know the meaning in their bones, but for the rest it is inexplicable. A Pakistani local defines the word as “an Urdu word that refers to the transporting suspension of disbelief that happens when fantasy is so realistic that it temporarily becomes reality usually associated with good, powerful storytelling.” The Cambridge A-Z of Spoken and Written Grammar defines it as “word or phrase like ‘anyway’, ‘right’, ‘okay’, ‘I say’, and ‘to begin with’. We use it to connect, organise and manage what we say or write or to express attitude. 

No transporting suspension of disbelief here, no fantasy that is so realistic it temporarily becomes reality here and no storytelling either. Goya becomes an abstract noun in English, it does not stay as an adverb, as in Urdu. 


This widely popular ‘untranslatable’ word often seen (and romanticised) is of Japanese origin.


There is something wildly attractive about an untranslatable word. It reminds us of our insignificance as we look at a language we know to scurry to translate this mystical word from a language we don’t know. It reminds us the world is far greater than us. While we do romanticise the untranslatable, the effort to translate is lazy. Most times we choose to not look into the culture the word carries. This practice simplifies the designated word, reducing it to a single feature. It dismembers the connotations, destroying its organic unity, treating its parts and properties as autonomous. It inserts the word and its meaning into a field of meaning which is ultimately external to it. 


We accept and understand the word without accepting and understanding the people who’s word it is. We know we don’t have much in common with the other, yet it offers some respite. Language is formed by culture and culture is influenced by language. One great example of the connection between a language and a culture is these so-called untranslatable words, or words that lack direct equivalent in other languages, as I prefer to say. 


Let’s take an example. The Finnish word “sisu” has no direct equivalent in other languages, but it is often translated as “guts”, “bravery”, “resilience”, “hardiness”, or “grit”. If you don’t know about Finnish culture and history you won’t truly grasp the meaning of the word and what it means to Finnish people. There are a lot of great quotes that describe how important it is to learn culture along with learning the language but one of my favourites is “the person who learns language without learning culture risks becoming a fluent fool”.


To risk not becoming a ‘fluent fool’, we must acknowledge what flows between us and the “untranslatable”. Often it remains unnamed and formless, since we’re only enjoying the untranslatable word without a deeper ulterior thought. Language, however, does not exist solitarily.


We must let the word bring to us, an alien to the language, what it carries for those who are native to the language. What ‘gets lost in translation’ is culture, context and history. Words are affected by the tone of voice, a gesture of a hand and the light in eyes. They can be powerful or fragile and to grasp the essence of the untranslatable, we need more than just the translation. 

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