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!