THE MOST UNTRANSLATABLE WORD.

Faithful correspondent Andrew Krug sent me a link to a BBC story by Oliver Conway claiming that:

The world’s most difficult word to translate has been identified as “ilunga” from the Tshiluba language spoken in south-eastern DR Congo.
It came top of a list drawn up in consultation with 1,000 linguists.
Ilunga means “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time”.
It seems straightforward enough, but the 1,000 language experts identified it as the hardest word to translate.

In second place was shlimazl which is Yiddish for “a chronically unlucky person”.
Third was Naa, used in the Kansai area of Japan to emphasise statements or agree with someone.
Although the definitions seem fairly precise, the problem is trying to convey the local references associated with such words, says Jurga Zilinskiene, head of Today Translations, which carried out the survey.
“Probably you can have a look at the dictionary and… find the meaning,” she said. “But most importantly it’s about cultural experiences and… cultural emphasis on words.”…

An amusing story, and I like the word ilunga (assuming it has been correctly rendered and translated, which may be a rash assumption). But of course a more rigorous examination makes the whole thing look rather shaky, and Mark Liberman of Language Log has provided such an examination. And his correspondent Alexander Koller adds:

not to mention the problem that the notion of a “most untranslatable word” is inherently ill-defined anyway. Surely you need to fix the target language to decide what the most untranslatable word would be. I can easily translate “shlimazl” into German “Pechvogel”, and that seems to express exactly the same meaning (although I don’t know about the finer points of the cultural references associated with “shlimazl”).
Yes, I suppose it means “hard to translate into English”. But the news article carefully avoids this level of precision.

But never mind: semantics is fun, regardless of analytical rigor!

Comments

  1. These words seem to have some precise meanings. In my humble experience I would have thought that words which that simply convey emphasis and can be different in different contexts are more difficult.
    An example is “doch” in german when translated into English. In some circumstances there are good words to use (eg “indeed”), but those words aren’t approrpiate with other usages of the word.

  2. Michael Farris says:

    I don’t know, this doesn’t sound like a list that translators would come up with … if anything it sounds like something some pop linguists searching for ‘exotic’ meanings would come up with. (How much translation is done into and out of Chiluba anyway?)
    The things I have trouble with (in Polish to English) are usually much more mundane. I’ll share a current problem.
    Mistrzu! – This is from a current assignment, a little old-fashioned, it means “master (of a trade)”, or “champion” and can be used as a friendly, maybe ironic form of address for a co-worker or a respectful form of address to a professional. It’s used both ways in the assignment and is even kind of important for setting the tone, but I’ll be damned if I can think of anything, suggestions are very welcome. The assignment is very specifically into American English so a British or other term probably won’t do, though of course I’d like to hear about it if anyone knows of something.

  3. Would “gaffer” be appropriate?

  4. Sorry – just seen your comment on UK words so sorry if I’ve suggested something that doesn’t fit US usage.

  5. John Kozak says:

    I don’t think “gaffer” fits the “respectful form of address to a professional”. “Guvnor” probably does, if you can banish the Regan/Carter associations.

  6. Michael Farris says:

    I’ve never heard (or at least never noticed) the word gaffer before and I think I’m probably more familiar with British forms than most Americans (not saying much).
    Would it help to mention that the professionals in the story are actors?
    I was hoping to use the same word in both contexts, but I’ll probably have to give up that idea. “Sir” will probably have to do for one use (young woman, non-actor, addressing the protagonist) but I have a hard time imagining colleagues using that among themselves. If anyone knows how American theater actors talk among themselves I’d be really in debt.

  7. If you’ve ever watched the credits of a movie you’ve seen the word “gaffer”—he’s the head electrictian on the set.

  8. I know gaffer is out due to the need for US English but it would have fitted quite well.
    It is used as a term for a boss, or as a dismissive label for an old man i.e. “he’s the gaffer”, or “he’s just an old gaffer”.

  9. “Gaffer” and “guvnor” are both pure UK (and may I add that I hate seeing UK slang used in translations meant for the use of the entire English-speaking world, let alone in an American context). I’m not in the theater (and the actress I work with isn’t in her office, so I can’t ask her), but “chief” occurs to me as an old-fashioned but still active affectionate term that might fill the bill. If I think of anything else, I’ll mention it.

  10. Michael Farris says:

    I’m sort of playing with maestro now. I don’t know if it’s authentic but it reads much better than I would have expected (for me).

  11. Yeah, in a theatrical context, I can see it.

  12. Before I read as far as the post that suggested “maestro” I was thinking, “Oh, ‘maestro,’ of course!” — great minds, etc. –

  13. may I add that I hate seeing UK slang used in translations meant for the use of the entire English-speaking world, let alone in an American context
    Is this a troll, languagehat? The same principle also applies in reverse, so I don’t really see the point of it.

  14. Thelonious says:

    Eliza, give us an example of something that would peeve a British English speaker about reading American English. Being American of course I prefer American English to British in terms of comprehension but what does the other side of the Atlantic think?

  15. It’s an interesting question. You have to translate into some dialect, if you’re going to translate slang at all. (Actually, if you’re going to translate at all, but the question’s more obvious, with slang.) I do get irritated with translations that are clearly translations into American English, but use British slang because (I assume, or maybe “I impute” would be more accurate) foreigners are all a cut above us and would naturally use high-quality English slang, not cheap American slang.

  16. Exactly. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with British slang — all slang is created equal — but I dislike the implication that the British variety is somehow more acceptable. Which may, I grant you, be Yank paranoia.

  17. “Yes, I suppose it means ‘hard to translate into English’. But the news article carefully avoids this level of precision.”
    Good point, Cantonese “Aiya!” is not well-translated into English, but maps perfectly to Yiddish “Oy vey!”

  18. On a list I subscribe to some suggestions for “naa” include:
    Absolutely!
    You said it!
    Awesome!
    Totally!
    For sure!
    No s**t!
    Bingo!

  19. Michael Farris says:

    I prefer translations clearly into either British or American. If the original translation is into British, then I think it should be adapted before being published in America.
    I don’t know if British readers prefer that American translations be adapted. I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t care that much since they have so much more exposure to American than the reverse.
    I remember reading the American version of Smilla’s Sense of Snow before coming across the British version (translated more faithfully but with less pizzazz as Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow). I don’t have either one at hand now, but does anyone know if one was adapted from the other or if both were done separately?
    Actually I’m generally in favor of adapting anything British before publishing it in the US (as was done with the Harry Potter books I think). But when it comes to English, I’m pretty much a nationalist (I think of British English like Norwegians probably think of Danish).

  20. I dislike the implication that the British variety is somehow more acceptable. Which may, I grant you, be Yank paranoia.
    But where has anyone said that? I certainly didn’t once I re-read the original question and added my second reply which recognized that British words weren’t appropriate. Nor would I ever imply that either type of slang or dialect is inferior.
    My point is that we in the UK are just as entitled to become irritated by encroaching USisms as are you about Britishisms. I don’t want to drag this thread into a slanging match so examples are therefore not appropriate. But language lives and changes and we will borrow slang from one another. I’m very surprised that languagehat, of all people, has taken this prescriptivist stance. I suspect a troll.
    DNFTT!

  21. Actually I’m generally in favor of adapting anything British before publishing it in the US … as was done with the Harry Potter books I think
    Ah, Hank Potter and the Magic Rock, as some have joked.
    That struck me as dumbing down to maximise the market rather than anything of literary benefit. Would it kill US readers to see, and have to think about, a different dialect of English? I was brought up on books like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; the 19th century US dialect was integral to the colour and sense of place, and there was never any question of anglicising them. Just imagine:
    She … looked out among the tomato vines and “jimpson” weeds that constituted the garden … she turned just in time to seize a small boy by the slack of his roundabout and arrest his flight … “There! I might ‘a’ thought of that closet … And look at your mouth. What *is* that truck??”
    She … looked out among the tomato plants and “stingers” that constituted the garden … she turned just in time to seize a small boy by the slack of his old army surplus jacket and arrest his flight … “There! I should’ve thought of that cupboard … And look at your mouth. What *is* that mess?”

  22. We should magnanimously allow our former colonial masters the right to be annoyed by American slang.

  23. My point is that we in the UK are just as entitled to become irritated by encroaching USisms as are you about Britishisms
    Certainly you are! And in fact I see expressions of such annoyance frequently, so you must allow us colonials our reciprocal feelings. (There are a lot more of us, you know… Oops, it’s that damn troll! Get out of here — this is a respectable joint!)

  24. Michael Farris says:

    “Would it kill US readers to see, and have to think about, a different dialect of English?”
    Yes it would.
    Or more seriously, the benefits of becoming acquainted with foreign dialects need to be balanced with the benefits of easy comprehension. The case of translations is a little less complicated, I prefer translations aimed at an American audience rather than getting a translation filtered through another variety of English.

  25. Or more seriously, the benefits of becoming acquainted with foreign dialects need to be balanced with the benefits of easy comprehension.
    I read as a child a mix of books in British English and unadapted US English (vast amounts of American science fiction as well as older classics), and the Scottish side of my family used to send me The Broons and Oor Wullie Christmas annuals whose strips were heavily peppered with Scottish dialect words. I find the idea of adaptation of literature completely alien: it’s spoon-feeding lazy, culturally blinkered readers.

  26. Michael Farris says:

    “I find the idea of adaptation of literature completely alien: it’s spoon-feeding lazy, culturally blinkered readers.”
    You probably _really_ don’t want to hear what I think of Shakespeare then …
    But what about translations? Do you really want to read a translation from Russian (or Japanese or whatever) through American English?

  27. Do you really want to read a translation from Russian (or Japanese or whatever) through American English?
    Want or unwant, this is very often what we get in the UK. Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami and I think all the manga (in Engleesh translation) I’ve ever seen.
    Personally, I experience frissons of horror at the thought of Australian English literature being pumped untreated into the South African or Nigerian markets, and the thought of reading an anglophone Indian newspaper by means of the InterWebNet is almost too repulsive to bear. Why can’t everyone speak American?
    It isn’t easy being a cricket fan, for sure!

  28. Michael Farris says:

    “Why can’t everyone speak American?”
    Well, that’s not my agenda at all. I just don’t care much for most non-American varieties of English. It’s one of the (very) few areas I’m kind of nationalistic about. If I read something produced by and for speakers of another variety that’s one thing, but given the choice between a British and American translation (or British original vs adapted for America) I’d go for the American option.

  29. It isn’t easy being a cricket fan, for sure!
    Christ, I bet it isn’t. Oh, you were talking about reading about it? Hm. They might have some kind of medication to help you there. Like you could just take tranquilizers, less trees would die.

  30. Trees? rec.sport.cricket doesn’t grow on trees.

  31. Tatyana says:

    Why don’t we talk about foopball instead?

  32. Just aesthetically speaking, I remember the pure delight I had in reading my first unretouched British English book — the delight of tyres and kerbs and eating out of tins and those mysterious garments called jerseys (which I took, for reasons now obscure to me, to look vaguely like Nehru jackets.)
    I’m very glad no one “protected” me from that delight, which has led me on to reading Old and Middle English and learning other languages.
    I have a feeling I’m missing a lot of irony and byplay in this conversation, so forgive me if I’m painfully earnest and off-the-mark.

  33. Why don’t we talk about foopball instead?
    Now, now, that’s not nice! I know the good Des claims not to be a fan of the Eng-ger-lund team, but I’ll bet it still smarts. Give him (and Beckham) a few days to recover.
    I have a feeling I’m missing a lot of irony and byplay in this conversation
    Even I have trouble keeping track of it — but that’s half the fun! As for English English, I have no objection to it per se, and like you I’m glad for my exposure to tyres and kerbs; I just don’t like to see it treated as the Universal Variety. There may have been some excuse for that a couple of world wars ago, but the fact that most serious bilingual dictionaries are still done in UKlish is just ridiculous, even if they toss the occasional bone to US forms (“US truck” &c).

  34. Michael Farris says:

    I suppose I’m glad for having had some exposure to British (and other kinds) of English, but as a source of delight in linguistic diversity, I put most of my effort into other languages. And, in my case, the better I’ve gotten at various other languages the less interest I have in non-American forms of English. For me, tyre can’t compare with k”arik”arichim karsuskchi(sp?) Aymara for “The fat sucker has taken my fat!” (to properly explain what’s so great about that would take about 10 pages)
    On the other hand, that hasn’t stopped me from collecting the Keeping Up Appearances DVD’s being given away with a local TV guide (do US magazines give away DVD’s? it’s really common in Poland).
    I also don’t like British treated as universal and I’m sure British (or other) speakers wouldn’t like American treated that way.
    In the true-but-banal front, among native speakers, American is the most widely understood variety, but among learners, especially in Europe, British is pre-eminent.
    But I’m willing to drop the subject and follow Tatyana’s sensible suggestion, my only question is should we talk about real football or soccer?

  35. I just don’t care much for most non-American varieties of English. It’s one of the (very) few areas I’m kind of nationalistic about.
    I don’t therefore think that as an English English-speaker, my further contribution to this thread will be generally welcome. I am disappointed that this discussion and therefore this site has been allowed to degenerate into such rampant nationalism. Nevertheless, it has been an education for me. I was not aware of such intolerance of the British in the US, supposedly our closest ally, but will bear this in mind in the future. As for dictionaries – publish your own if it’s such a big deal.
    Forget the football. It’s over.

  36. Les bleus sont partis, hélas; il n’y a plus du foop.
    (Swe-der-lund, Swe-der-lund!)

  37. Eliza, maybe I’m counting funny, but it looks to me that among the five who’ve weighed in, the odds are 3 to 2, in your favor (if we count your opinion, which we do). So. Dunno if there’s too much to get huffy about, really.
    (And, if you like, I could get huffy about the absurd adaptations of Harry P. into American, which are absurd, and worth getting huffy about, in my opinion, if not Michael Farris’s, but. And I’ve gotten huffy about having to teach British English when I don’t speak it, but it’s absurd, and not worth getting huffy about.)

  38. Tatyana says:

    Eliza,
    Please don’t withdraw your company. I am always glad to read your learned comments here.
    You think you get it tough? Listen to this (I was just reading delightful ‘Ashenden’ by S.Maugham at breakfast, and came across this paragragh)
    “This roused Mr. Harrington to the utmost pitch of indignation,… he cried out:
    “Tell him I don’t understand a word he says and I don’t want to understand. If the Russians want us to look upon them as a civilized people why don’t they talk a civilized language?…”"
    Oh, what a beautiful day lies ahead!
    Oh, and Michael Farris: there is only ONE football. Soccer is a term invented by losers with inferiority complex.

  39. Eliza, please don’t go! You’re always welcome here, as are all the fine UK commenters who grace my threads; I, at least, am talking only about seeing British English treated as the default setting. I like it fine on its own terms. Pax?

  40. I hear that the Eskimos ahve no word for “snow”. They’re just sick of the stuff, and don’t ever talk about it.
    Also, Basque is closely related to Navajo.
    Also, children raised without human contact will spontaneously speak Yukagir.

  41. After some thought: I agree with Eliza. The fact that Languagehat has been prepared to tolerate – and even mildly endorse – comments that are well into linguistic racism has shot the credibility of the whole site. I am also out of here.

  42. What an unsettling sensation. Like reading my own obituary after a spectacularly avoidable accident.
    On the other hand, I suppose it means that I can keep my usual comment handle for now.
    I saw a commenter express an odd prejudice (presented as such) which met no aggreement. Otherwise, there’s been the usual “as appropriate” sort of hedging. The use of “racism” in this context mystifies me.
    As for the translations, “chief” seems like an inspired (American) choice. The best I’d come up with before reading the comments was “Colonel”.

  43. Second Ray – yup.
    I don’t understand Michael’s position either, but whatever, you know?
    Come on, gang, let it hang.

  44. [P.S. - don't you need a race in order to have racism? I speak as an American with a large proportion of the old Anglo-Saxon behind me.]

  45. Man, by the time I got to the end of this thread I’d totally forgotten what my original comment was going to be.

  46. What on earth? Are Eliza and Ray Girvan playing a joint prank on me? “Linguistic racism”?? Sheesh. I’m going to bed.

  47. “I remember the pure delight I had in reading my first unretouched British English book — the delight of tyres and kerbs and eating out of tins and those mysterious garments called jerseys.”
    I concur, Dale.
    I have long felt that I would rather have read the Potter books in the UK English. Though I am an American, when reading stories which are set in the UK or told by a British narrator, I prefer that the dialect be from the UK.

  48. Me too. I didn’t think much of the first Potter book (the only one I’ve read), but I was glad I had a chance to read the British edition and I think it was idiotic to rewrite it for the US audience, especially since they did a half-assed job of it. (See? I have nothing against UK English!)

  49. I don’t have a link, but I had thought that with her fame, whatserface has gotten a bit more leverage with publishers, and after Harry Potter #3 they’re all published in the original in America (minus “centre” plus “center”, natch).

  50. I don’t have a link, but I had thought that with her fame, whatserface has gotten a bit more leverage with publishers, and after Harry Potter #3 they’re all published in the original in America (minus “centre” plus “center”, natch).

  51. Oh yeah, that’s what it was. As a kid, I wasn’t bothered at all by reading British (or Canadian) English. My teachers, however, did not like the way I spelled words like “center” and “color” and my grades on spelling quizes suffered as a result. They obviously graded me into submission.
    When I set out to read “Anne of Green Gables” in Russian, I was very anxious to see how the translator would render her discussion of why Anne “with an e” is better than plain, boring “Ann.” She preferred “Ania” to “Annuschka.”

  52. Michael Farris says:

    Hmmm I’m almost tempted to look up a Polish copy of Anne (which I’ve always scrupulously avoided) to see how that’s handled in Polish, whether like in Russian, with a culturally appropriate substitution (well done IMHO) or more literally. The Polish fondness for nonsensical literalness in translation doesn’t make me optimistic.
    And although my instincts tell me to stay away from this thread now, I’ll relent and give some examples of bad translations from Keeping Up Appearances.
    The Bouquet/Bucket contrast in Bukiet (bouquet) Żakiet (jacket) which of course makes no sense whatsoever in Polish.
    The conceit of the sisters all being named after flowers is ruined by the too literal choice of Wioletta (maybe Violetta) for Violet (‘Violet’ is masculine in Polish, fiołek) although the other names are okay, Róża (Rose) and Stokrotka (Daisy). Hyacint comes out as Hiacyntia (not the flower name, but obviously related).
    On the other hand, the translator(s) came up with a couple of good things.
    Onslow is Powolniak (_very_ roughly “Slowpoke”)
    and they came up with the brilliant
    Przestań piętrzyć trudności.
    literally “Stop piling up troubles (for me)” (the Polish is much funnier)
    as a recurring line for Hyacinth even though it doesn’t seem to correspond to any recurring line in the original.

  53. “When I set out to read “Anne of Green Gables” in Russian, I was very anxious to see how the translator would render her discussion of why Anne “with an e” is better than plain, boring “Ann.” She preferred “Ania” to “Annuschka.”
    “Hmmm I’m almost tempted to look up a Polish copy of Anne (which I’ve always scrupulously avoided) to see how that’s handled in Polish,”
    Today I watched fragment of “Anne of Green Gables”. I realized that Anne and Ann was translated into Polish as Ania and Andzia :) funny isn’t it?

  54. Michael Farris says:

    Ewelina, thank you. I never have the courage to watch NAmerican films with a Polish lector (a worse way of translating movies has yet to be found).
    But I’m confused, Ania sounds very plain and common, but Andzia sounds (to me) to be a little low class (thinking of the occasions I’ve heard it, but my perspective is a little skewed and Polish people may not hear it that way).

  55. Yes probably Andzia can be a little bit low class and young girls usually don’t like being called that way, so Anne of Green Gamble could be annooyed:) I think that Ania is the most common version of Anna. ( Anna could probably be too official in that situation) but there is also Anka which is not as polite as Ania.
    You are right watching films with Polish lector is not a nice experience but living in Poland I have no choice…

  56. What I want to know is if there is any word to describe words that are untranslatable or nearly untranslatable and which are borrowed from other languages/times?
    I’ve heard of terms such as borrowed words, neologisms, and so on, but none specific enough.

  57. Hey Hat,
    How’s it going?
    What language is this in? Anybody?
    http://www.congo2005.be/natuur/frameset.php?page=tentoonstelling.php&lang=li&menu=1&otherlang=li

  58. I can’t get to it — no matter how I diddle with the URL, I get:
    The requested URL /natuur/tentoonstelling.php〈=li was not found on this server.
    But the abbreviation “li” plus the fact that the site is about the Congo makes me sure that it’s Lingala.

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