March 24, 2006

Untranslatable, or perfectly translatable?

Been thinking, past couple days, about meaning, and the levels on which it pertains. This is all well-trod ground, so… But! The word 'ice' has a well-accepted general meaning: it's frozen water. For most people I've asked, tho, the phrase 'to break the ice' does not call to mind the thought of frozen water (save, course, on the rare occasion that the term's used literally); in that phrase, does the word 'ice', by itself, have any independent meaning? I think (as I'm sure many, many others have, before me): No. The meaning lives in the context and cannot be separated therefrom.

Previously, I've avoided sending you words like the Twi term 'twa': Usually, 'twa' means 'to cut'. However, the predicate determines the meaning of the verb very, very frequently in Twi. 'Twa akpeteshie' means 'to drink moonshine'. 'Twa nkɔmmɔ' means 'to have a conversation'. This mutability of meaning is a factor in almost all the common Twi verbs. It allows a dozen or so morphemes to do the bulk of the language's verbing.

So, so many words that are considered untranslatable translate quite easily *in context*. It's only when asked to stand on their own — where they carry the baggage of all possible combinations — that these terms seem uncapturable in other languages. But, Arabic. Most Muslims consider the Qur'ān to be untranslatable. Some consider this simply the result of the beauty of the language: The words were chosen by God Itself, so there's no hope of a human's doing justice through approximation. However, there is a school of reading which gives great importance to Arabic's three-letter roots: Most non-grammatical terms are derived in a semi-systematic way. Thus ك-ت-ب (K-T-B) is the root of a bunchload of words pertaining to writing: The verb كتب (kataba) means 'to write'. كتاب (kitāb) is 'book'. مكتب (maktab) is 'office'. مكتاب (miktāb) is 'typewriter'.إستكتاب (istiktāb) is 'dictɑtion'. In this understanding of how the language of the Qur'ān works, the relationship between words of a shared root is not only etymological, but semantic, and each word carries traces of all its cousins.

A religious example: The first half of the fundamental Muslim creed — the شهادة (shahādah) — is usually translated 'There is no god but God.' This is not the tautology in Arabic that it seems in translation: The second term is, as one might expect, الله — Allāh. The first term, however, is إلاه (ilāh). In the book *Four Basic Quranic Terms* (perhaps ironically, I'm reading this in translation from Urdu), Syed Abul-Ala Maududi looks into the various derivatives of the root ا-ل-ه ('-L-H), and finds meanings that include: '[Become] confused or perplexed… [Achieve] peace and mental calm by seeking refuge with someone or establishing relationships with him… [Become] frightened of some impending mishap or disaster, and [receive] the necessary shelter… [Turn] to another eagerly, due to the intensity of [one's] feelings for him… [Adore, offer] worship to…' From these varying meanings produced by the basic root, Maududi finds إلاه to bear specific implications not inherent in the English term 'god': 'We may therefore safely conclude from the above that the connotation of the word ilah includes the capacities to fulfill [sic] the needs of others, to give them shelter and protection, to relieve their minds of distress and agitation, superiority, and the requisite authority and power to do all these, to be mysterious in some way or hidden from men's eyes, and the turning of men eagerly to him.' This term, therefore, wouldn't be properly applicable to a deistic god or a Norse deity. (Tho, I should note, colloquial usage is not so strict.)

Generally, this kind of reading is applied selectively, and use of this form of exegesis varies from reader to reader. I don't have enough experience with the Arabic language or the Arabic-speaking world to say how widely people understand this kind of relationship between words to exist in quotidian life.

From an untranslatable book to the most translated book in history…I have been looking into the Twi translation of the Bible. In Genesis2:12, I found a Twi term that I had not encountered before and which was in none of my dictionaries: bedola. The NIV had 'aromatic resin',but the KJV had the more mysterious 'bdellium', which is probably drawn from the same term in the Vulgate, which, in turn, likely comes from Greek βδέλλιον (bdéllion). The Twi apparently was lifted directly from Hebrew בדלח (ḇədōlah) — no doubt, also the source of the Greek. Theories abound as to what this substance might be (and some of these theories have been accepted by mainstream dictionaries), but the fact is that Biblical and Hebrew scholars really don't know — the word appears only twice in the Bible, and nowhere else in the Ancient Hebrew corpus — so the Septuagint, the Vulgate, the KJV, and the Twi Bible all simply opted to swallow the word whole into their appropriate languages. (The KJV is preceded by Ælfric's 11th century Old English translation of Genesis, which contains 'dellium', and Wycliffe's c. 1395 Middle English 'delium'. It's entirely possible that the word was borrowed into English anew each time.) In Spanish, the Reina-Valera Bible uses 'bedelio' (or 'bdelio' in the old version), as do several other translations. Luther opted for 'Bedellion' in German. 'Bdellium' may be found in French. (My Thai Bible, however, and the two others I've found on-line have gone with ยางไมัหอม [yāŋ-mái hɔ̄̌m] which corresponds to the NIV's 'aromatic resin'.)

There is an exact, one-to-one, correspondence between these terms in their various languages (Ancient Hebrew בדלח excluded — it referred to a physical reality [or imaginarity] in a way that all these translations don't). On some level, we must consider בדלח untranslatable, as its exact meaning is unknown. But all these borrowed references translate one another with unparalleled exactitude.

Or not: If some well-known Romantic poem had used the term 'bdellium', it might mean a little more in English than it does in French. But perhaps that's true even without what-ifs: Does the Greco- Latinate 'bdellium' — which may call to mind heavy elements from the sagging belly of the Periodic Table and which begins with an exotic cluster of dark consonants — suggest the same thing to the Anglophone ear as the lighter, directly Hebrew-derived, and more familiar 'bedola' does to the Twi-speaker? 'Bedola' *could* be a Twi word, if it weren't not one. The Angles, Saxons, and Normans wouldn't have dreamt up 'bdellium' on their own.

Or perhaps the Angles, Saxons, Normans, and their linguistic descendants have never owned the word at all; perhaps 'bdellium' isn't a translation of בדלח. Is 'schmuck' an English translation of Yiddish 'schmuck'? Is 'garage' English for French 'garage'?

One last thought: Does the term *really* mean anything at all, in any variation, except as an expression of the wealth of Havilah? Perhaps the word, by itself, is as untranslatable as 'ice' in 'to break the ice'.

Bob Offer-Westort
San Francisco, California, USA

Posted by dwaber at 03:27 PM

February 25, 2006

on untranslatability


I'm writing this to you because it's more than a contribution to the new site. You can use as much of it as you think belongs.

I happen to think that no word is untranslatable into English. You may have to use a phrase or a sentence but a really clever translator like William Weaver or Richard Howard or Alastair Reid can do it. Do it in English, especially now American English, because English is a hybrid language and because our supposed class structure is fluid and because we're living through an age of linguistic change akin to the Elizabethan. The English-writing East Indians are now taking the lead.

A good indication of translatability by takeover is the many Yiddish words now in English dictionaries, like shlep or shmuck--there are tens of others. But other Yiddish words, like yichus or k'velen haven't made it because the feelings behind them are too subtle. Yichus means good blood, well born, but if you don't live up to the promise of your family stature, then you haven't really got it. k'velen means to glow and beam with inexpressible pride and happiness.

(All of these words are transliterations from a Yiddish written in Hebrew characters.)

And that's the real untranslatability of words in other languages, words imbedded into their languages over time. All the other contributions take that into consideration very well. What you can¹t carry from one language into another is the thrill of using it in a context that comes from the word's belonging to its linguistic roots, habits, and family. Also includes facial and bodily gestures.

All to the Good,


After I sent it off I thought of another sense of untranslatability. How do you "translate" funky not just to a foreigner but to an American who never paid attention to jazz or rock, or to an older American who went through the Sixties gritting his teeth?? My 1968 Random House desk dictionary doesn't carry it. The online

carries it as slang, so its untranslatability would seem to be specialized. Still, the same online dictionary adds the following:

"When asked which words in the English language are the most difficult to define precisely, a lexicographer would surely mention funky."

All to the Good,


Posted by dwaber at 10:37 PM

February 23, 2006


The word "no" in English does not translate exactly into, for example, Japanese--not in polite conversation, at any rate. Negative responses are considered impolite, and, thus, must be couched in other terms. One of my favorite books about Japan was one called "Sixteen Ways of Saying No," and, wouldn't you know, one of those sixteen ways was "Yes," which, as often in English, means "I'm listening." The aversion to "no" in this sense is common in Latin American Spanish as well, I believe.

Halvard Johnson

Posted by dwaber at 05:54 AM