Gregory Rabassa (1922-2016) –a crucial figure in the dissemination of Latin American authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar in the US– stated that the search for the “perfect” term that translators do is the counterpart to the search writers do. Which words are the hardest to translate and how do translation professionals face this challenge?
As in other languages, when texts are translated into English or Spanish, it is important to choose words that carry an equivalent meaning. However, sometimes it is challenging to achieve this in a few words. Why? Because some terms or phrases are unique to the original language and require long explanations to be fully understood in the readers’ context.
From that perspective, German is one of the languages that poses the most challenges for translators, because it includes thousands of words that represent several concepts. For example, waldeinsamkeit means “to be alone in the woods”, and kummerspeck means “grief fat” and it refers to the weight one gains when eating to relieve anxiety or sorrow. Other words that can be interesting for non-native speakers are verschlimmbessern, which refers to the act of making things worse while trying to fix them, or wanderlust, which refers to the wish to explore the world. There are more curious examples. Ohrwurm means “ear worm” and refers to that annoying feeling when a song is stuck in one’s head and one can’t stop singing it. And drachenfutter is the gift (chocolates, flowers, etc.) offered by a husband or boyfriend to their partner to make up for misbehaving.
The longest German word has 36 letters: Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung. It means “civil liability car insurance”.
Japanese also has many challenging words, such as bakku-shan (women that are beautiful when looked at from behind, but not when seen up front), shinrin-yoku (to absorb the wood’s atmosphere), komorebi (light filtering through tree leaves), tsun-doku (to accumulate books without reading them) and kouyou (the reddish hue of leaves in the fall). Perhaps the complexity of Japanese —similar to German— is that there are thousands of words that are formed by the union of two ideograms which, in turn, have a different meaning when used independently. The union of two or three ideograms represents a word in Japanese, but attempting to translate that by a single word in English may be very difficult, or simply impossible.
And if we think of Spanish, there are also many words that can seem “untranslatable”. While many of these are related to jargon and regional variations in some countries (like lunfardo in Argentina), others refer to every day cultural phenomena, such as:
● Merendar/merienda: In English, we don’t have a single word that refers to this practice of “having a snack in the afternoon”.
● Sobremesa: To stay at the table after one is finished eating to continue talking with friends or family; this does not have a clear equivalent in English.
● Anteayer: This word means “the day before yesterday”. In English, there is no simple equivalent, but such a word can be found in other languages, such as Japanese, which uses the union of two words (ideograms) and is pronounced ototoi.
● Empalagar/empalagoso/a: This word —which can take the form of a verb or an adjective— is used to describe food that is excessively sweet, or to refer to a person who is always looking for approval or good opinions by flattery.
● Friolento/a: An adjective used to describe people who are always cold.
Unique Words that Bring Us Closer
If a term does not have an exact equivalent in English or Spanish, its meaning can be conveyed with a few words, or maybe a few sentences. That is the unique creative talent of professional translators. Such challenges cannot be met with mathematic thinking.
In fact, prominent linguists, such as Noam Chomsky, have questioned the idea of certain words being “untranslatable”. They state that everything can be explained in some way, using more or less words.
Eunoia, a website devoted to words that are considered untranslatable, currently includes more than 500 words in 70 languages.
“No two snowflakes are alike,” wrote Rabassa in his essay The Craft of Translation: “Translation is not after the same sign, but rather, the most useful approach. Our judgment needs to acknowledge that the best translation is the closest one.”
Both for translators and readers, having contact with words that do not have a ready equivalent allows them to learn interesting and curious concepts that are worth discovering. This exercise connects us with other cultures, lifestyles and world views.