Carina del Valle Schorske, a writer and translator and a doctoral candidate in comparative literature, has an interesting piece in today’s NY Times Magazine about the struggles of translation:

It’s telling that the Puerto Rican poet I’m drawn to most — Marigloria Palma — is known for her mystery. Here is my translation of Norma Valle Ferrer’s account of seeing her on the streets of San Juan: “We were nearly neighbors and I used to see her walking the old city: tall, slim, almost always dressed in a black pencil skirt and bright patterned blouse, and shoes with very low heels. … It pains me that I never approached her, but she always seemed so ensimismada.”

In every process of translation, there’s always a word — or 10 — I don’t really want to translate. Sometimes English swallows these words whole, no italics necessary: “déjà vu,” “karaoke,” “schadenfreude.” I nominate “ensimismada” as an addition: its rumor of M’s and S’s, the way it snakes around itself then locks — “da” — like a necklace. If I translate it as “self-involved,” we lose this music and come face to face with all the negative judgments the music keeps at bay, too close for my comfort to “selfish” and “stuck up.”

Ensimismada” is really just the feminine adjectival form of “en si mismo,” meaning “in itself.” […] Ensimismada is the way someone else sees you: You’ve been caught in a reverie, and now your very relationship with yourself becomes the object of someone else’s interpretation. Is she tired? Why doesn’t she smile? Who is she, where is she going, why is she here? Maybe you’re the sort of person — a female person, a migrant person, a brown person — who is not encouraged to have a relationship with yourself. The look on your face translates as unacceptably distant, as almost foreign.

Of course ensimismada is perfectly translatable, depending on context; here you could say, for example, “wrapped up in her own thoughts.” But the implications of translation are always worth paying attention to. (Thanks, Eric and Trevor!)


  1. matematichica says

    Another word I wish I could not translate is “estrenar” in the sense of “use for the first time.” For example: “Hace fresco– voy a estrenar la campera de cuero,” meaning “It’s chilly — I’m going to wear my leather jacket for the first time.” Or “estrenas la mochila que compraste el otro dia” “You’re using the new backpack you bought the other day” which one might say to a friend after helping them decide which backpack to get. In English, one can convey some similar ideas with phrases like “taking for its maiden voyage” and “trying out” but the latter has a more tentative feel than estrenar, and while the former captures some of the excitement, it’s mostly about vehicles and would seem a bit marked as a phase to describe wearing a new shirt.

  2. I didn’t get it. She does not want a negative connotation and then goes ahead and provides negative points of view?

  3. Trond Engen says

    matematichica: estrenar

    Emphasizing the first time use without being too specific about it? How about “start using”? “It’s chilly — I’ll start wearing my leather jacket.” “Start using that backpack you bought the other day.”

  4. matematichica says

    Well, except “estrenar” has a bit of “for the first time ever” and a bit of excitement. It’s also the word you use for opening night of a play or something. It’s like our host said– you can translate it, but when I’m talking to Spanish speaking friends, I’ll use “estrenar” even when we use English for every other aspect of the conversation.

  5. Yeah, I actually find “estrenar” a better example of a hard-to-translate word, at least if you want to maintain the connotations.

  6. marie-lucie says

    The counterpart of Spanish estrenar in French is étrenner ‘to use/wear (sthg) for the first time’.

    This French verb is built on étrenne, a feminine word normally used in the plural. Les étrennes usually refers to a traditional gift given at Christmas or New Year’s, but often specifically money as a bonus or reward to someone performing a regular service, for instance the mailman or street sweeper, who are not normally paid by the people who benefit from their service, or sometimes a domestic servant. A family would traditionally provide des cadeaux ‘gifts’ to children and family members for Christmas or similar feasts, but give des étrennes in the form of an envelope with money for New Year’s Day to the person or persons mentioned above. So indeed receiving des étrennes always involves some excitement for the recipient.

    The verb étrenner always refers to something new to the person who is the subject of the verb. You might buy a winter jacket on clearance in the summer but wait to étrenner it until the weather demands it. Trying it on in the store is not étrenner.

    I don’t think this verb would apply to the first representation of a play, a first concert, or similar event.

  7. Ensimismada may be easily translatable by meaning, but it’s harder to keep the flavour. It’s a peculiar, whimsical word that feels playful, almost like a pun or self-conscious Carrollian meta-aware coinage. It feels like someone took an entire phrase, mashed it together into a single word (never mind the language’s intrinsic resistance to agglutination), tacked on a verbal particle ending (never mind the lack of verb and the fact that it ends up in a grammatical adverb), and then called the resulting singleton construct an adjective; something like “withinownselfed” but more morphologically amusing and, amazingly, a “real” word.

  8. True, true, but there are so many playful words whose playfulness can’t be carried across — elevenish, say, or getatable. There’s only so much translation can do.

  9. I nominate “ensimismada” as an addition: its rumor of M’s and S’s,

    rumor of? Should that be ‘murmer of’? Or at least something about the word’s “music”? (There are no ‘claims of questionable accuracy’ here?)

    But each day, when she walks to the sea
    She looks straight ahead, not at me

    When she passes, I smile but she doesn’t see, doesn’t see

  10. @matematechica, how about ‘debut?’

    I debuted my jacket at the Christmas party, etc.

  11. Rumor sometimes means ‘noise, din’. In The Hobbit the narrator speaks of “the awful rumor of [Smaug’s] flight”, meaning the beating of his enormous wings over the Lonely Mountain. Recent OED citations often have the sense of something heard indistinctly because from far away, but still loudly. (Note that as often in Tolkien, awful has both the modern sense of ‘terrible’ and the archaic sense of ‘awe-inspiring’ at the same time.)

  12. Speaking of untranslatable, are there any examples where the or have made life difficult for translators into Russian?

  13. What do you have in mind? Why would they be difficult?

    Russian has a word обновить /obnovit’/, which, in addition to banal meaning of renew, can also mean to use for the first time. I didn’t do any research, but my intuition tells that it has a tinge of excitement in that meaning.

  14. Today’s English speakers are too timid. Jealous of estrenar/étrenner? Just steal it, applying a few sound changes to give the impression that it was in English all along. “Let’s meet up tomorrow, I want to strene my new jacket.” Or maybe strenate for the classically inclined. (For an additional challenge, work something out with handsel instead.)

  15. Beckett’s play Fin de partie was originally to be presented in English as End of the Game or possibly The End of the Game (I’m not sure which) until the author explained that it was Endgame, “as in chess”.

  16. -the or have

    present no difficulties to Russian translators whatsoever.

    Because they omit them entirely and nobody complains

  17. Like To Have and Have Not, if you wanted a literal translation.

  18. Trond Engen says

    matematichica; “estrenar” has a bit of “for the first time ever” and a bit of excitement

    Then I nominate ‘unwrap’.

  19. If you want literal, you shall have literal


  20. I believe most proximal-possession languages translate that title with a construction roughly equivalent to “to be been at and not be been at”.

  21. David Marjanović says

    Russian, probably thanks to Church Slavonic, has a word (иметь) that simply means “have”; it just isn’t used in anything resembling daily conversation.

  22. January First-of-May says

    Wiktionary says (I’m paraphrasing a little): “Иметь is rarely used in Russian, except in set expressions (иметь в виду – “to have in mind”), or when discussing non-physical objects (он имеет право – “he has the right”). The most common way to express normal possession is у + genitive subject + есть + nominative object.”

    As for translator troubles… I can’t think of any more well-known example, but the Russian translators of Taylor Varga (an obscure crossover fanfic of an obscure web novel and an extremely obscure anime) have recently been wondering how to translate the name of a character known simply as The Amy. (TL/DR: she’s a different identity of an existing character named Amy.)
    Fortunately they still have about fifty chapters left until they get to any scenes with that character.

  23. marie-lucie says

    Trond: I nominate ‘unwrap’

    NO! if you unwrap a gift but never wear it, that is not “étrenner”.

    I remember a time as a teen-ager when my mother bought me a very nice piece of clothing for my birthday, much nicer than anything I was used to. I kept it in its original box for months, not even daring to try it on. When I finally decided to try it on, perhaps the following year, it turned out that it did not fit me! and it was much too late to return it. I don’t remember what happened to it, but it was never étrenné (not by me at any rate).

  24. -have recently been wondering how to translate the name of a character known simply as The Amy.

    Та Самая Эми

  25. Handsel is about giving, not about exhibiting, as its etymology shows. Hand=sellen was originally an expression for ‘transferring possession by putting the object in the receiver’s hand’; it is a calque of Latin mancipatio < manū capere ‘take by hand’. The sense ‘good-luck gift’ goes back to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Syþen riche forth runnen to reche honde-selle / Ȝeȝed ȝeres ȝiftes on hiȝ, ȝelde hem bi hond.

  26. Trond Engen says

    marie-lucie: NO! if you unwrap a gift but never wear it, that is not “étrenner”.

    I thought it might work in a context where use is clearly intended.

    But I may be restricting myself too much by looking for simple words. In Norwegian I’d use innvie, which translates as “inaugurate (e.g. a building); use (something) for the first time”. Would ‘inaugurate’ work? My sense is that it’s restricted to the public celebrations meaning.

  27. I second Amir’s debut. Indvie would work in Danish too.

  28. marie-lucie says

    Trond: The French verb inaugurer is used for significant public buildings, new museum rooms, and the like, when they are officially opened to the public with some fanfare. I don’t think you would use it for anything personal, any more than étrenner would be used for public inaugurations.

  29. Would ‘inaugurate’ work? My sense is that it’s restricted to the public celebrations meaning.

    Your sense is correct; it wouldn’t work in this context.

  30. @Mat: I’m in your team; I believe that translators can, are justified in, and should weird the target language with borrowings, adaptations, calques, and deliberate semantic extensions based on false friends. Well, literary translators, at any rate. See also Venuti.

  31. Also since when Matt has a new blog and how come I didn’t notice it 😮

  32. I once read a screed by a “translator” who believed that it was a Good Thing to translate English soul by French saoul ‘drunk’. Somehow I don’t think so.

    Un petit d’un petit
    S’étonne aux Halles
    Un petit d’un petit
    Ah! degrés te fallent
    Indolent qui ne sort cesse
    Indolent qui ne se mène
    Qu’importe un petit
    Tout gai de Reguennes.

  33. I think debut could work, or maybe premiere.

  34. marie-lucie says

    JC: translate English soul by French saoul ‘drunk’

    This translator did not know that saoul is pronounced just like sou. Only in the feminine form saoule is the l sounded.

  35. The original here is: “Me duele no haberme acercado a ella, parecía siempre tan ensimismada.”

    Myself, if I wanted to conserve some of the sounds, I might consider “she always seemed (so) immersed”.

    Of course, if I were really just going for sound, I might improvise around “seemed to be smarter”.

  36. It’s possible that he wrote saoule and I just forgot that. But I think the visual resemblance was plenty for him: I wouldn’t be surprised if he “translated” English chat as chat, too.

  37. I wonder how he would translate “wood preservative” into Russian

  38. marie-lucie says


    I think that in French I would use absorbé(e) dans see pensées, so caught up in their thoughts that they don’t notice the external world.

  39. Handsel is about giving, not about exhibiting, as its etymology shows.

    Etymological fallacy! OED offers sense 5 which I feel could be profitably expanded:

    5. The first use, experience, or example of anything; the first results of a person’s work or effort. Now rare.

    A couple of example sentences:

    1589 R. Greene Menaphon sig. H3v Had not Samela past by..he should lyke inough haue had first hansell of our new Shepheards sheepehooke.

    1772 T. Nugent tr. J. F. de Isla Hist. Friar Gerund II. iv. 84 This, Sirs, is the hansel of my oratorical labours;..this is the first of all my sermons.

    1910 A. Stanton Let. 22 July in G. W. E. Russell A. Stanton (1917) vii. 280 I hope you will like Chamounix. It was my first handsel of the Alps, and I never forget it.

    (Who knew Ted Nugent used to be so sedate?)

  40. estrenar: I would nominate “try out” in English, as in “It’s chilly today, so I’m going to try out my new jacket”. It has the sense that you’re going to find out if it fits properly, really keeps you warm, etc. In the sense of clothing, household appliances and many other things, it’s something you can only do once.

    If it’s something that can be changed, like a play, I suppose it could have a try-out performance, undergo some rewrites and then have another try-out, because it’s not quite the same as it was. Perhaps the same for clothing if it didn’t fit and you had some alterations done.

    Ensimismada: Some people might use “away with the fairies” as a rough equivalent, but I’m not sure how widely it’s used. Like if someone spoke to you and you weren’t paying enough attention to comprehend what they said, you might say “Sorry, I was away with the fairies.”

  41. Never heard it; I’m guessing it’s a UK thing.

  42. marie-lucie says

    maidhc: estrenar, étrenner

    The time to check whether a new garment fits you is in the store or at the tailor’s, not when the weather appears suitable. I can’t vouch for Spanish but with French étrenner there is an element of pleasure which “try out” doesn’t seem to have.

    away with the fairies

    In French there is être dans la lune ‘to be on the moon’ which has a similar meaning but is usually said about children who are not paying attention to what is going on around them, including what people say to them, because they seem to be in another world. To say this about an adult would suggest mental deficiency.

  43. -Never heard it; I’m guessing it’s a UK thing.

    Fairies were left behind in England. America doesn’t have any.

  44. I’ve heard “away with the fairies,” but I’m not sure from where.

  45. Oddly, it is a 20C expression, at least in its figurative sense. There are American hits: the Washington Post used it in 1987 to characterize the Incredible String Band.

  46. Fairies were left behind in England. America doesn’t have any.

    Ahem. I thought for a moment to make a gay joke, but my better judgement won this time ’round.

  47. ensemismada = self-contained?

  48. The twentieth century date is no real surprise, since the existence of fairies wasn’t established until 1917.

  49. Report from the front: French people born ca. 1985 uniformly say inaugurer or jocularly déflorer for using something for the first time; some remember étrenner (bizarrely always pronounced [etrɛne], medial ɛ is not very frequent in young French) as a word “my father uses occasionally”, some don’t understand it.

    Edit: I just asked two other people born ca. 1990; both know it and are surprised that there are people who don’t. The only thing I can say that there’s much variation.

  50. David Eddyshaw says

    “Away with the fairies” is pretty standard for me; I have the impression it’s Scots, but that could just be an illusion generated by my own linguistic history. For all I know, Surrey stockbrokers may say it all the time. Or not. As you may think.

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