The charm of untranslatable words


Imagine that you are meeting someone at home, and while you are waiting, something prompts you to go in and out to see if that person is coming. Only if you speak an Inuit language will you have a word – iktsuarpok – to express that feeling between anticipation and impatience.

The writer and illustrator Ella Frances Sanders collects this voice in her book Lost in translation , along with other “untranslatable” words linked, many of them, to affections.

However, lacking a word like iktsuarpok does not prevent us from understanding what it means. In fact, we feel something similar when we wait for someone and we do not stop looking at our mobile.

Another surprising word is ilunga , from the Bantu Tshiluba language, which refers to “a person who forgives an offense the first time, tolerates it a second, but never the third.”

The “shame of others” and its translation

Spanish has another difficult expression to translate, the phrase shame of others , which means the embarrassment felt by faults or actions committed by others.

If, as Noam Chomsky affirms, all languages ​​are, in essence, the same, why are there words that have no correlation in other languages? Are they really untranslatable? To answer, we must delve into the relationship that exists between words, the world and what we are capable of thinking or feeling.

To some extent, all words are a bit untranslatable. Each word, as Ignacio Bosque affirms , has a radius of action that varies from one language to another. A simple example: try translating good afternoon . In English it is the greeting reserved for after 12:00 until more or less 18:00 With what expression do we greet in that time slot? In Spanish it will be good morning , but also good afternoon .

The difficulty of finding an exact term in another language reveals that the words are not a verbal reflection of a reality structured in advance.

Concepts and words

In reality (if it exists, Hume would say) everything is connected and everything flows (Heraclitus would say). There is no still photo that allows us to see clearly the compartments of the world. Still, human beings are capable of organizing our chaotic experience into categories, some of which end up turning into words.

As the professor of Linguistics at the UCM Victoria Escandell points out, humans organize our environment in classes, leaving aside the imperfect, changing and unique character that our experience has.

Each class gives rise to a concept. It is convenient to insist that the concepts are not in reality, but are “entities” of our mind. In this sense, there is no “the” tree, nor does “the” man, nor, by the way, there is no “the” Spanish language. All these concepts are necessary abstractions that allow us to fix reality in order to reason and talk about it.

The number of concepts that we can create depends on the objective properties of the world (for example, the shapes of objects), but also on the needs of human beings with their environment, so the classes will vary from one culture to another.

Why do languages ​​have different words?

The number of concepts that we can form is potentially infinite. However, the language only expresses with words (or lexicalizes) some conceptualizations. For example, in Spanish we have names for the fingers of the hand or the foot, but not to indicate the left foot and the right foot, as Julio Cortázar points out in the story Instructions to climb a ladder :

To climb a ladder, one begins by lifting that part of the body located on the lower right, almost always wrapped in leather or suede, and with exceptions it fits exactly on the step. Putting said part on the first step, which we will call the foot for short, the equivalent part on the left is collected (also called the foot, but not to be confused with the foot mentioned above).

Within human limits, each culture segments the continuum of reality differently and converts some of these concepts into words, so that there is a double source of variation between languages: that of concepts and that of words.

The reasons why speakers store a certain word in their mental dictionary have to do with cultural relevance and profitability. In this sense, it is reasonable that the Inuit have more words to distinguish types of snow.

The language as a system

As we saw with the case of greetings, the fact that the words are connected to each other forming networks also complicates the translation. For example, while Spanish has a system of three demonstratives ( this , that and that ), English has only two ( this , that – this and that -). Does that mean that English speakers can’t tell the difference between middle distance and distance? Of course not. The lexical systems of two languages ​​are never equivalent, so many times you cannot change one word for another without losing part of its meaning.

What we can do is translate a concept from one language to another by morphological or syntactic means; hence it is possible to define iktsuarpok or ilunga .

The words “untranslatable” are extraordinary cases of the expression of particular needs of a culture and of the relationships that they maintain with other words in the lexical system of the language to which they belong.

These words are surprising to us because they cause our conceptual stability to wobble for a moment and that we once again feel the astonishment of Funes the memory , who could not understand how the dog of three fourteen (seen in profile) had the same name as the quarter past three (seen from the front).

Author Bio: Pilar Pérez Ocón is Professor of the Spanish Language area at the University of Alcalá