Uzan uthise.

I generally find lists of “untranslatable” words irritating; they tend to consist of variations on “comfortable” and “longing” plus a few implausible items alleged to mean, say, “the sensation of dipping your pinky finger into a pond freshly dappled by rain.” Like “funny things my students write in their papers,” you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all. But Shashank Bhargava has a much better idea in What is untranslatable? Ten translators from Indian languages list their candidates: “In an effort to understand the struggles and the ingenuity that goes behind translating literature, we asked some of India’s best-known translators about the things they have found the hardest to translate.” Here’s the first, by Aruni Kashyap:

Recently, I translated Arunachali writer Yeshe Dorje Thongchi’s short story The Smell of Bamboo Blossoms to English, written in Assamese. I found the first line of the short story very hard to translate: Kameng noit enduror uzan uthise.

Now, “uzan uthise” in Assamese refers to a very specific phenomenon during the monsoon, when freshwater fish start to breed after the first showers. When this happens, mature fish swim up to the surface of the water bodies, making it very easy to catch them. People choose this time to catch fish with their nets because it ensures high yields.

This makes the phrase difficult to translate to English. Literally, it means the river/pond is swarming with fish because when they want to breed, they come to the surface, making them look voluminous. But “uzan uthise” means not just the swarming of a large number of fishes to the surface, but also their behaviour during breeding.

In this short story, Thongchi uses this phrase to describe the growth in the population of rats in Arunachal after consuming bamboo flowers. He wasn’t necessary referring to the activity of reproduction, but after consuming bamboo flowers the rats were reproducing in enormous numbers anyway, forcing them to cross the river in thousands in search of food and consume everything on their way. The opening sentence describes this phenomenon of rats crossing the river en masse.

Isn’t that fascinating? And this, from V Ramaswamy on Bengali, resonated strongly with me:

For me the novel is the language, not the plot, which is merely a device through which the language is expressed. A little bit of the nature and quality of that language can be conveyed in translation but the auditory experience is entirely lost.

Similarly, in Bangla there are two registers of writing the language, shuddha or formal, and cholti or spoken. So when you have the two registers appearing next to each other, you can do this or that to render it in English, but the fact is that it achieves nothing. The nature of the act of reading this in the original can be explained, but it is not experienced in its details, with all its cognitive linkages.

Yes, “the novel is the language, not the plot” — that’s a concept I’ve tried to express more than once, but never managed such concision. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. Bobbing for apples was proclaimed as untranslatable into French by an English-to-French translator (except by explaining it at length).

  2. Excuse me, but how “bobbing for apples” is connected with “Marital status and longevity in the United States population”?

    The connection kind of evades me

  3. Sorry, I was working on two postings at the same time. Bobbing for apples.

  4. Heh.

  5. That’s why Mori Ōgai’s Maihime is so popular in a way not very accessible to those who read it in translation. The men spoke in faux Chinese and the German dancing girl spoke in the courtly Classical Japanese of 10th century. The classicizing garb on the daily life of an ascendent elite group, which prides itself on its culturally classicizing and Westernizing tendencies, in contrast to the vulgar petty bourgeois tenor of the Edo period, is half the point of the story; the story itself is rather generic.

  6. I think season-related vocabulary can be hard to translate well because it often combines not only a “period of the year” meaning that can be translated, with referential accuracy but not very satisfyingly, as “spring, summer”, etc.; but also the local climate (it was a revelation to discover, when I moved from the Pacific Northwest to the East Coast, that the four seasons could correspond to the actual weather outside), local practices during that period, and seasonal patterns in local flora and fauna. For me, I’d enjoyed Basho’s poetry, but it never really clicked until I learned a little about the seasonal elements in his imagery (without necessarily going all the way down the rabbit hole of season words in haiku).

    Re: “uzan uthise”. There’s a Sumerian term “a-eštub”, which literally means “carp-flood”, that refers to a similar phenomenon as well as the time of year when it occurs (likewise the rainy season, which they still had in Southern Mesopotamia in 2100 BC). The term is also used in the Gudea cylinders to evoke teeming people (in a positive sense of plenty and ease) when the gods founded the city of Ĝirsu. I kind of enjoy the thought of two people, thousands of years and thousands of miles apart, seeing the same thing and making a similar poetic connection. Plus ça change…

  7. Fascinating! I’m so glad to have a Sumerian expert around.

  8. ə de vivre says

    I’m so glad to have a Sumerian expert around.

    That’s the first time in over 2,000 years that that phrase (or its equivalent) has been said.

    (At first I was a little self-conscious about how often I jump on my hobby-horse, but I started to worry less about it once I noticed how many comment threads, whatever the original topic, end up discussing PIE etymologies)

  9. Trond Engen says

    I have thought that the PIE salmon word originally meant “fish flood”, becoming a dead metaphor in Indic and used with specific referent in Western IE.

  10. Trond Engen says

    There is no discussion that can’t be improved by Sumerian.

  11. marie-lucie says

    Trond, I have thought that the PIE salmon word originally meant “fish flood”

    What is the word, and how to you analyze it?

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    For the related question “can you translate the Assamese word for that kind of fish over there into English” here’s a handy guide to Assamese names for fish, with varying English equivalents of varying sorts of translation (e.g. name that sounds like an English name for a kind of fish v. just using the Linnaean name v. using the Assamese name as a loanword v. using something obscure-sounding that’s probably a loanword from a different South Asian tongue):

    One way or another, if there is a felt need to talk about a particular species of fish among some subset of Anglophones, some way will be found to talk about it, but it may or may not be a way that strikes non-specialists as plausible or idiomatic-sounding.

  13. Trond Engen says

    I’m on travel and don’t have my primary reference Bjorvand & Lindeman available, but It’s the word that gave No. laks “salmon” and Hindi lakh “100 000”. I have no internal analysis to offer — I don’t even think there’s one on offer — but semantically it makes sense to start with something like “swarm”

  14. Trond, “swarm” is the obvious connection. There’s a parallel in Greek and Chinese with regard to ants, so we get “myriad” in Greek or whatever the original form is and 萬 wàn (Simplified is 万) meaning “10,000” or “innumerable” which I remember hearing in class was an obsolete word for “ant” (now superseded by 蚂蚁 mǎyǐ​).

  15. marie-lucie says

    myriads of ants

    Not completely relevant, but in French there is the verb fourmiller (from la fourmi ‘ant’) meaning “to appear to move like a mass of ants”, for instance En été les plages de la Côte d’Azur fourmillent de touristes ‘In the summer the beaches of the French Riviera are crawling with tourists’.

  16. “Not completely relevant, but in French there is the verb fourmiller (from la fourmi ‘ant’) meaning “to appear to move like a mass of ants”,”

    Completely relevant! My high school teachers would teasingly refer to us that way sometimes.

  17. Trond Engen says

    No. myldre have the same senses as French fourmiller. I’ve never thought seriously about the etymology. Good old Falk & Torp say it’s from an older Da. myle v., from my “mosquito”. But they also note Sw. myrla v., from myra “ant”.

    (Locally here, people say mysse, from mus “mouse'”.)

  18. marie-lucie says

    Jim, perhaps your teachers were not actual francophones? Fourmiller is not what people do, it is what happens to the location where the people are, like an anthill when it is disturbed and all the ants come out and run around like crazy. It could be said of a high school cafeteria at lunch time, perhaps.

  19. David Marjanović says

    which I remember hearing in class was an obsolete word for “ant”

    I’ve read the character depicts a reportedly homophonous scorpion instead.

  20. “I’ve read the character depicts a reportedly homophonous scorpion instead.”

    Are you maybe thinking of 禹, as in 大禹治水?

  21. David Marjanović says

    …Perhaps. I’m out of my depth here. Google Translate fails at the whole phrase (is it a four-character idiom?) and renders 禹 alone only as an emperor’s name.

  22. “Excuse me, but how “bobbing for apples” is connected with “Marital status and longevity in the United States population”?”

    If your husband drowns in a tragic apple-bobbing incident, your marriage is, by definition, over.

  23. David Marjanović says

    (Unless you’re Mormon.)

  24. Online dictionaries of Chinese characters give 蝎 (scorpion) as the original meaning of 万.

  25. 大禹治水 means “Yu the Great tamed the waters (or floods)”.

  26. Yes, it does. I had been taught that that ruler’s name meant scorpion.

    Edward Schafer is who I heard that etymology of 万 from, now that I think of it. He was usually pretty careful about that kind of thing.

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