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11 Mar 2020

On untranslatability – The COVID-19 situation is ongoing here, but I’d like to talk about something different for a change. A while back I read an interesting LitHub article, titled “Why We Love Untranslatable Words.” I happen to have translation on my mind these days—even more so than usual—having recently finished up a draft of a book translation and being in the middle of preparing to teach a translation course. I actually started writing this entry about a month ago, and I’ve been fiddling with it on and off since then. In fact, I’ve spent the past few days just tweaking things here and there, trying to tease something coherent out of my jumbled thoughts. I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded, but I think it is time to release this thing into the wild anyway. This is an essay in the original sense of the word—an attempt to grapple with an idea. It is meandering, and I might even lose my way at times as I chase a rabbit a little too far down a hole. I do come to some conclusions, but these conclusions are mine and I claim no universal authority for them. All I hope is that it will be an interesting and thought-provoking read.

“As a translator, I do not believe in untranslatable words.”

If you haven’t done so already, go read that article (actually an excerpt from a book) I linked to in the previous paragraph. At just a shade over 1500 words, it’s much shorter than this entry, so it shouldn’t take you long. If you’ve done that, I’ll begin with a disclaimer: I have not read the book the excerpt is from (although it looks like it would be an interesting read) and am going solely on the excerpt itself. Thus it is possible that I am missing some more nuanced points that the author makes later on in the book—in fact, I would be surprised if I weren’t.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I will say that I basically agree with the author’s main point in this excerpt, which I think is encapsulated in the following sentence:

When you believe people are unfathomable because they speak a different language, you’re just as capable of thinking that they’re inferior or evil, instead of charming or other-worldly.

What Shariatmadari, the author, is talking about here is known as “othering.” At its most fundamental level, to “other” someone is to define them as completely different from oneself; in practice, it also often involves ascribing an inferior position to this Other. Even painting a group of people in a romantic light can be detrimental to that group if it prevents us from coming to a true understanding of who they are—especially if it is a dominant group doing the painting. One historical example of this can be found in early American history and literature: the “noble savage.” In brief, the noble savage was an archetype that depicted Native Americans as possessing an innate nobility that had not yet been sullied by modern Western civilization. On its surface, it seems to be a positive concept, as it admits that modern Western civilization may be flawed and recognizes that other cultures may have desirable traits. In fact, though, those who used the archetype were more concerned with criticizing Western civilization than they were with understanding people groups who did not fall under that umbrella. By making the Other little more than a stereotype, you have relieved the reader of the burden of understanding a character as an actual human being. It may just be literature, but literature has long had the power to shape how we think of other cultures. Uncas, from James Fennimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, for example, did much to plant the image of the noble savage in the American psyche. For a more recent and more personal example, I only fully realized after moving to Asia that the books of James Clavell, such as Shogun, which I had read in my youth, trafficked heavily in noble savage stereotypes (not to mention orientalism).

There are two other ideas that are worth mentioning here in connection with othering. First of all, if you want to other someone and their culture, you need to engage in generalization. That is, you take an element observed in one or more members of a set and apply it universally to every member of that set. It is a heuristic, a trick that makes ordering, categorizing, and understanding the world around us easier. At its most fundamental level, it is a basic cognitive skill that is necessary for survival—if we did not have the ability to apply our experience to new situations, we would be at a severe disadvantage. Imagine, for example, that Og encounters a saber-toothed tiger that tries to eat him, yet somehow he manages to escape. If Og is capable of generalization, the next time he sees a saber-toothed tiger he will be better prepared and even more likely to survive. As with all heuristics, though, the danger lies in applying this thinking too broadly, and generalization can become harmful once the loss of accuracy begins to outweigh the gains in efficiency. When we apply this same heuristic to groups of people, things start to go awry, which makes sense—our interactions with saber-toothed tigers were very simple, but our interactions with other humans are far more complex and nuanced.

The other part of the equation here is essentialism. While generalization universally attributes an element to an entire group, essentialism perceives that element as an essential part—or defining characteristic—of the group. To go back to the example from the previous paragraph, Og may start out by generalizing that all saber-toothed tigers will try to eat him, but as he learns more about the world around him, his understanding may deepen to the point that he realizes this tendency on the part of saber-toothed tigers is an essential part of their nature. That is, this is just what saber-toothed tigers do as carnivores—they hunt and kill other animals for food—and this distinguishes them from herbivores, such as wooly mammoths. Again, this can be a very helpful way of thinking, as it allows us to perceive the nature of things in the world around us and thus better predict how our interactions with those things will go. Of course, like generalization, essentialism can be problematic when applied incorrectly, as it can obscure individual motivations and thus lead us astray.

I will come back to these ideas (and to essentialism in particular) a little later; for now I just wanted to bring them up so you could let them simmer on the back burner of your mind. To return to what I was originally saying, though, I do understand the danger identified by Shariatmadari, and I agree that this thinking can be problematic. But I want to switch gears again for a moment and tackle the concept that he uses to illustrate this point: the idea of “untranslatable words.” What do we mean when we say that a word is “untranslatable”? Do such words actually exist? And what does that mean about the way humans think?

Let’s look at the first of those questions, because this is one area where I think I might part ways with Shariatmadari. There is confusion on this idea from the very beginning of the article—actually it begins in the title of the article itself, which mentions “untranslatable words” and then goes on to refer to “undefinable concepts” in the subtitle. The problem here is that “untranslatable” and “undefinable” are not the same thing. “Translate” comes from the Latin translatus, which means “carried over.” That is, the act of translation is often seen as a transferring of what is conveyed by the words of one language to the words of another language (although good arguments can of course be made that this is far too simplistic to describe what is actually going on). Definition, on the other hand, as I discussed in a recent entry, comes from the Latin definire, which means to set limits or boundaries. Thus to define a word is to determine its semantic range, to delineate the senses in which it is used.

Translatability, then, is the ability of the concept signified by a given word or words in one language to be expressed in a different language; definability, on the other hand, is the ability of a word to have its meaning and the linguistic contexts within which it is used explained. Shariatmadari does not distinguish between these two ideas; for example, he refers to an internet definition of the Urdu word goya (“a transporting suspension of disbelief that happens when fantasy is so realistic that it temporarily becomes reality”) as a “translation.” I know it may seem like I am nitpicking here, but I believe that the distinction is important—not just important, actually, but central to the fundamental issue at stake here. If you believe that a concept is truly undefinable—and let us clarify here that we are talking about defining a concept across linguistic and cultural boundaries, as presumably all words in a language are definable to the people who speak that language and are members of the culture that shares that language—then you are entertaining the idea that there really is no way to understand other cultures, that they think in such a radically different way than we do that there is little hope of ever finding common ground.

Translatability, though, is a much more specific problem, and anyone who has ever translated anything will know that some words are indeed more difficult to translate than others. Shariatmadari pish-poshes the very idea of untranslatability in the very first paragraph, though, where he says that goya is “one of those mythic beasts, the untranslatables,’ the foreign words that supposedly lack any equivalent in English.” But I can think of any number of words in Korean that lack an exact equivalent in English. One such word is a term that appears quite often in the book I recently finished translating: maeum (to get within spitting distance of the Korean pronunciation, say this as an “ow” stuck between two “m”s, but don’t round your lips on the vowel sound—leave them flat). In terms of English-language concepts, it can generally mean either “heart” or “mind.” To put it another way, the concept sees no reason to draw a distinction between heart and mind. There is no English word that functions in exactly the same way, thus there is no equivalent in English.

Does this mean, however, that maeum is untranslatable? Hardly. The word appears about two hundred times throughout the course of the book, and not once did I fail to translate it. I rarely even needed to stop and think about whether the usage would be expressed in English as “heart” or “mind,” or even by a different word or phrase entirely—such as with the phrase maeumdaero, which literally means “in accordance with one’s maeum” but would be translated idiomatically as “as you please,” or something to that effect. In fact, I would say that I have probably encountered maeum thousands if not tens of thousands of times over the course of my translating career, and I have never thought of it as being anything approaching “untranslatable,” despite the fact that it has no single exact equivalent in English.

This is, of course, not the point Shariatmadari is trying to make, but I thought it was a point worth making—namely, that not having an equivalent in English does not make a word untranslatable. I will come back to his point in a moment, but I want to completely dispel this myth of untranslatability before moving on, and in order to do that I think it is important to understand that translatability is not a binary concept. There is something of an illusion of binariness when it comes to “-ability” concepts, such as “potable,” “edible,” “breathable,” “livable,” etc. Potable water is defined as a liquid that is “fit or suitable for drinking.” Edible things are defined as things that are “fit to be eaten as food.” If an atmosphere is breathable, it is “able or fit to be breathed.” You get the picture. If you were to take any “-ability” concept and reframe it as a question, you would have something like “Can you drink it?” or “Can you eat it?” Maybe it is our love for games like Twenty Questions, but most people will answer “yes” or “no” to questions like this. Are they really yes-or-no questions, though? What exactly does “fit or suitable for drinking” mean? When I was in Africa back in the early 2000s, we dug our own well, and the water that came out of it was... well, let’s just say it had a lot of suspended particles in it. If I gave you a glass of that water and asked if was fit for drinking, you would probably say no. That was all we had for several weeks, though, and we found that it was indeed potable. In fact, the first time I drank tap water after that I found it quite bland, distinctly lacking in flavor and texture.

My point here is that there is in fact a spectrum of suitability for human consumption when it comes to liquids, and the lines we draw between “suitable” and “not suitable” are based on our particular experiences and circumstances. Actually, it’s not really accurate to talk about “lines,” as this implies that there is a certain point on a spectrum that clearly delineates suitable from unsuitable. In extreme cases—I don’t think anyone would disagree that hydrochloric acid is not potable, for example—it is fairly easy to determine suitability, but the closer we get to the mythical line the harder that determination becomes. To put it another way, one end of the spectrum is black and the other is white, but every conceivable point in between is some shade of gray, and it is very difficult to distinguish adjacent shades from each other (see also the paradox of the heap).

In the same way, translatability is not so much a binary attribute that a word possesses as it is an assessment of how well the concept or concepts represented by that word can be embodied in a different language. So, the way I see it, to say that a word is “untranslatable” means that there is zero percent chance that any of the meaning or nuance of a word can be carried into the target language. I will admit that this is probably not the common perception of translatability; when people say that a word is not translatable, or that it “doesn’t really translate,” what they mean is that it is not one hundred percent translatable. That is, that there is some aspect of the nuance of the source language word that doesn’t quite come across in the target language. This is the idea expressed in what appears to be the source of the definition Shariatmadari quotes for goya, which notes: “Many languages are simply not able to capture the essence of the meaning of a word in another language.” This seems to be saying that there is some kernel that remains untouchable, no matter whether you might be able to translate what surrounds that kernel. If this is the bar you are setting for translatability, though, you may end up finding that, in fact, no word is translatable. (I should probably mention here that the question of whether translation is even possible is an open one, with people falling on both sides of the divide. I suspect that this divide exists due at least in part to differences in the way that different people define “translatability.”)

For a host of reasons that I am not going to get into right here, translation is about accepting imperfection. Good translators always strive for perfection, of course, but they know that it is an ideal rather than an achievable goal. Mind you, this does not mean that translations are necessarily lesser than their originals. It does mean that they are necessarily different, though. Just as maeum is not exactly the same thing as either “heart” or “mind,” so no translated text can ever be the same as its original. This is not a bad thing; it is just the nature of language and translation.

So, after this long and rambling romp, I find myself coming to the same conclusion as Shariatmadari—that “untranslatables” do not exist—although I think I might have a different understanding of what it means to be untranslatable. But I disagree on other counts, as well, namely on the matter of why we are so enamored with the idea of untranslatable words. Shariatmadari claims that the concept of untranslatable words appeals to us because we want to believe that there will always be some mystery left in the world. He goes on to argue that, with a little effort, we can bring these mysteries into the light, and thus there can never be such a thing as an untranslatable word.

On the one hand, I don’t disagree with the underlying principle here—that it is possible to come to a sufficient understanding of other cultures and people, given enough time and effort. After all, I’ve spent nearly a quarter of a century learning the language, history, culture, and arts of Korea, and I would like to think I’ve arrived at a decent level of understanding. My problem with this line of reasoning is one of scale. I would say that I can understand most of the nuances and intricacies of just about any Korean word I come across, but let me remind you that it has taken me nearly twenty-five years to do so, and I am always learning new things—to be honest, I don’t think the learning process will ever end. While I do try to make an effort to learn about and understand other cultures beyond Korea, there are just not enough years in a human lifespan to come to a perfect understanding of every culture on earth. As a result, I do in fact believe in the idea that Shariatmadari dismisses: “that the world can never fully be mapped out and expunged of mystery.”

You might be thinking, “Well, yes the world may never be fully rid of mystery, but certainly it doesn’t take all that much effort to come to at least a basic understanding of other cultures.” This is true—I would say I probably acquired 90% of my understanding of Korea within my first ten years of living here, and even a year on the peninsula would be enough to educate a receptive soul in the basics. But it’s often that last 1% of mystery that causes us to feel that a word “doesn’t really translate.” Let’s go back for a moment to the first example Shariatmadari gives in the excerpt and the one I mentioned above: the Urdu word goya. Shariatmadari looks down his nose at the “breathless internet account” (“breathless,” used in a trivializing sense here, is the key) that claims goya “is an Urdu word that refers to the transporting suspension of disbelief that happens when fantasy is so realistic that it temporarily becomes reality .?.?. usually associated with good, powerful storytelling.” I will grant that the wording is a little unfortunate—not the effusive, romanticized description, but the phrase “refers to” (if you followed my previous link to the source, you’ll notice that most of the twenty entries on that page use similar wording, so this is not something limited to that author’s understanding of goya). As Shariatmadari points out, goya is in fact a discourse marker and doesn’t “refer” to anything like fantasy or storytelling. Had the author of this post instead written “evokes,” though, I believe the problem would disappear—and we would finally get to the heart of what people really mean when they say a word is “untranslatable.” Bear with me a little longer as I try to peel away the layers surrounding this concept of untranslatability and get at what I think is the core of things.

When people say that a word “doesn’t translate well,” they might be talking about a word like maeum that has a different semantic range than either “heart” or “mind” in English. I can think of plenty of Korean words that on the surface may seem pretty straightforward but upon closer examination are far more vague or broad than similar English words. Iyagi is one word that comes up all the time in translation. If you look it up in a Korean-English dictionary, you will find words like “story,” “talk,” “conversation,” and “chat.” The thing is, iyagi has an incredibly broad semantic range that encompasses anything a person might say, although it will usually have a narrative or dialogical structure (thus a simple exclamation would not be called iyagi—although an aphorism might be). Like maeum, though, I never really have to think twice about how to express it in English. There are other words belonging to the same constellation as iyagi that are also interesting to look at. Mal, for example, literally means “word” or “words,” but like iyagi it is often used to refer to something a person might say—the difference being that mal can but does not necessarily imply a narrative or dialogical structure. Sori is another word that can be used to refer to something a person might say, although its literal meaning is “sound” or “noise,” and it can also be used to refer to singing. It lacks any implication of narrative or dialogical structure, but it also can have a somewhat negative connotation and is often used dismissively or derisively. Just like maeum and iyagi, though, I have never struggled with how to translate either mal or sori. As I said above, just because there is no one-to-one correspondence between the source and target languages, that doesn’t mean that a word is untranslatable. It just means it doesn’t have an exact equivalent.

More often, though, a word will feel like it doesn’t translate well not because of its denotations, but because of its connotations, specifically its social or cultural connotations. The Korean words I mentioned above—maeum, iyagi, mal, and sori—are not all that fraught with sociocultural meaning, but there are some terms that are absolutely dripping with such connotations, words like han and nunchi. I could probably write entire entries on each of these concepts, but what they actually connote is not as important for our purposes here as the simple fact that they are thought by many Koreans to be particularly Korean concepts. That is, they play specific and important roles in Korean culture and society, roles that go far beyond what the words themselves actually mean. Han, for example, which according to a Korean dictionary is “a knotted feeling of intense resentment, a sense of distress or of suffering unfairly, and sadness,” has traditionally been thought of as a defining characteristic of Korean identity. This always befuddles my Chinese exchange students, since the character used for han () simply means “to dislike” or “to hate” in Chinese, with none of the denotations—let alone the multilayered connotations—it has in Korean.

If the mention of “defining characteristic” rings a bell, that is because I used this phrase above when talking about essentialism. Concepts like han are both generalizing—Koreans, in the general sense, are supposed to feel han over any number of things, including those that they may have never personally experienced, such as Japanese colonialism or the Korean War—and essentializing—to be Korean is to feel han. There is a third idea that often follows these two ideas: that concepts like han are exclusive or unique to a people group’s experience. This does not follow logically from the idea that something is either a general or essential characteristic of a people group—the same characteristic could easily be both general and essential to more than one people group—but we often seem to make this leap anyway.

All three of these ideas—generalism, essentialism, and exclusivism—have no doubt been around for quite some time, but it is in the modern era that they began to manifest and interact in interesting ways in terms of political identity. As this is a bit of a tangent and I don’t want to stray too far from the path I originally set out on, this is going to be very simplistic, but suffice it to say that the medieval era was generally characterized by universalism. One example of this can be seen in the use of a singular written common language among the elite of a civilization sphere, such as Latin in Europe or Chinese in East Asia. Politically speaking, nations as we think of them today did not exist; there were indeed individual nations, but they were often subordinate to a greater political entity, such as the Catholic Papacy in Europe or the Chinese Empire in East Asia. Educated individuals were of course aware of their citizenship, but thanks to their shared linguistic and cultural heritage they often thought of themselves as belonging to a larger polity than just the nation. They were, quite literally, cosmopolitan.

The medieval order eventually gave way to the modern era, but this transition was neither a clean break nor did it happen at the same time in every area of the world. It was a very gradual process that might not have been obvious to most people at the time, although now we can look back and see certain milestones that mark the way (such as when the Anglican Church broke from continental Catholicism in 1534). For our purposes today, though, the relevant thread of this transition into modernity is the rise of romantic nationalism in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Again, I don’t want to get too deep into this, but European thinkers like Herder argued for the idea of a “national soul,” claiming that different nations were defined by the characteristic natures of their people. While this may seem to be a reasonable idea on the surface—after all, to this day we still talk about Germans being like this, Koreans being like that, Americans being like something else, etc.—it denies and even suppresses diversity for the sake of a myth of unity. German folklorists in the early 20th century, for example, talked of “cleansing” folklore of pernicious foreign influences and returning it to its pure original state. If the phrasing of that sentence brings to mind some unpleasant associations, well, that’s not a coincidence—folklore and other cultural products were important weapons in the Nazi arsenal (one Nazi slogan was “Das Buch—Unsere Waffe,” or “The Book—Our Weapon”). The same was true for Soviet folklore, as folklorists in the field were instructed to collect only folklore that conformed to the image of the Soviet soul and purge everything else as un-Soviet. In other words, folklore as a national project was decidedly prescriptive rather than descriptive. And although the abuses of folklore are perhaps more obvious in totalitarian regimes, democratic societies do the same thing, if sometimes somewhat less insidiously—in the end, though, everyone engages in myth-making. (George Washington and the cherry tree, anyone?)

Apologies if this tangent has gone on a bit too long, and if you are wondering how I intend to fold romantic nationalism into the idea of untranslatable words. It is quite simple, actually. Even though romantic nationalism saw its ascendancy in the 19th century, we still often think this way in the 21st century, even if we might not vocalize these ideas. And romantic nationalism helps us understand why generalism and essentialism are usually accompanied by exclusivism—if you believe that certain characteristics are both general and essential to your identity as a nation, you have a vested interest in perceiving them as exclusive to your nation as well. After all, if something like han were something that everyone could feel, it wouldn’t be very useful in the project of creating a national identity that is by definition distinct from other national identities.

I’ve written all of this to explain where I part ways from Shariatmadari, at least in the very brief excerpt we read above. I agree with him that we often like to think of people from other cultures as exotic and mysterious, but I don’t think that this necessarily (or at least fully) stems from a desire to maintain some sense of mystery about the world—I think it instead stems from the phantoms of romantic nationalism that are still embedded in our minds, the idea that nations and cultures are fundamentally different and thus inscrutable to each other.

It will probably come as no surprise to you when I say that I do not believe that there is some national soul in a people that makes them who they are. That being said, allow me to very briefly clarify a few things. Firstly, I am of course not denying the existence of differences between peoples. I’ve lived half of my life in a country halfway around the world from where I was born, and I am very aware that significant differences do exist. It’s just that I attribute these differences to culture, which is acquired, as opposed to an inherent national soul—or, to use a more modern phrasing, a “national DNA.” The idea of a national soul or a national DNA is an exclusionary one, while the idea of an acquired culture is a potentially inclusive one. Granted, this is an idealistic and simplistic view of things, and I’m not going to deny the role that ethnicity plays in identity formation—especially when your ethnicity is not the majority ethnicity of your culture—but that is a complicated discussion best left for another time.

Secondly, while my perception of cultural differences does allow for mutual understanding between peoples, arriving at a significant level of understanding requires time and effort, as I discussed above. When Shariatmadari talks about “the idea that the world can never be fully mapped out and expunged of mystery” being “an easy replacement for the hard tasks of empathy and understanding,” I’m fairly certain that what he is trying to say is that we should not simply give up trying to understand others just because the world is filled with so many peoples and cultures that often seem unfathomable. To put this in terms of translation, this is akin to arguing against giving up on translating a word just because we can’t capture exactly what it connotes and denotes in the source culture. And I can get on board with that. But in the process of making this point, it also sounds like he is arguing that there is, in fact, no great mystery in the cultures and languages of other peoples. Am I misreading him here? It is possible. But all of the examples he provides seem to have the same message: “Hey, look! This word that we thought was some mysterious and unfathomable—to outsiders, at least—concept is actually a very simple and understandable idea!”

As I mentioned above, though, I do believe that the world can never be fully mapped out and expunged of mystery. We might be able to sketch the basic outlines, but there will always be things we are going to miss. Even though I would like to think that I know a fair deal about Korean culture at this point, I still feel like I am learning every day. I bet that even if you, dear reader, have lived your whole life in one culture, there are still things about that culture that you do not know or understand—especially when cultures are continuously changing and evolving. There is a finite amount of time in a human life, and we spend those seconds, minutes, hours, and days doing a wide variety of things. Hopefully we spend a good deal of that time trying to understand others better, but no matter how much of our time we devote to this task there are limits to what we can accomplish. So, on the one hand, while I agree that we should indeed try to understand other cultures, I think it is a bit presumptuous to assume that there is no mystery left in a culture simply because you have perceived part of it. And, yes, I also think that some of the mystery is locked into the language—maybe not in the denotations of words, but certainly in their connotations. After all, one of the joys of learning a new language is finally making these connections and stumbling onto yet another key that will allow you to delve even deeper into that culture.

Let us now try to bring this full circle and see if we can wrap up my thoughts on this—or at least come as close as possible to wrapping them up. I’ll start by stating some conclusions. Firstly, translatability is not a binary concept but a spectrum, and there is no such thing as a truly “untranslatable” word; it’s just that some words are harder to translate than others. Secondly, the romantic nationalism of the modern era, or at least its idea of a national soul, is still alive and well today, and I believe this—not necessarily a desire to see the world as mysterious and unexplored—is what leads us to suspect that certain culturally bound concepts (often called “culture-specific items” in translation studies) might not translate. Thirdly, underlying causes aside, the triad of generalism, essentialism, and exclusivism may be useful in the formation of a group identity, but they also become hindrances to attempts at cross-cultural understanding, including translation!

After all, that is—despite the various tangents I might have chased—what I’m talking about here: the project of translation. And one way of looking at that project is to see it as taking a message that has been coded for one culture and making it not only understandable but as close to having the same effect as possible for another culture as it did for the source culture. This latter idea is a concept known in translation studies as “functional equivalency”—that the function of a translated text should be equivalent to the function of the source text—and it is one of those ideals we might strive for, even if we never quite get there. While reading through my translation of that book I finished recently, tweaking as I went, I was all too aware that one hundred percent functional equivalence is impossible. This does not mean that the function of the text will be impaired, though, or that it will somehow be inferior to the original. It will certainly be different, but I am hoping that when it does at last see the light of day, it will have as powerful an effect on readers as the original had on me when I first read it.

I guess it should come as no surprise that, as a translator, I do not believe in untranslatable words. I think it would be pretty depressing if I did. But I also don’t think that translation is ever easy, just as I don’t think communicating across cultures is ever easy. I do think that both endeavors are worthwhile and rewarding, though, and that is why I do what I do.

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