30 May 2014

Tackling Untranslatable Content

It has been estimated that there are currently around 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. Around 90% of these are used by fewer than 100,000 people. And with the ever changing nature of language and the inexorable march of human endeavour, a new word is created every 98 minutes, in English alone.

So, does this mean that translators are ever faced with a situation where they are forced to hold up their hands and admit some content is just untranslatable?

Over the next few paragraphs we’ll look at some of the trickier sectors to translate content for and ways of surmounting the seemingly insurmountable.

Untranslatable words

Translating any language will always feature a degree of interpretation. While many words do have an exact translation, some are unique to a region or culture. Occasionally, words will evolve in one language that have no direct opposite. If you happened to be schooled in the lexically deficient tongue, then their meaning can appear as succinct as poetry, capturing a moment or a feeling that would otherwise need a sentence to describe.

Here are 10 words with no English equivalent:

1) Komorebi (Japanese) The interplay between the light and the leaves as sunlight filters through the trees.

2) Cualacino (Italian) – The mark left on a table by a cold glass.

3) Waldeinsamkeit (German) – The feeling of being alone in the woods.

4) Boketto (Japanese) – To gaze vacantly into the distance without thinking.

5) ktsuarpok (Inuit) The feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’ve arrived.

6) Sobremesa (Spanish) – The period of time after a meal when you have conversations with the people you have shared the meal with.

7) Jayus (Indonesian) Slang for when someone tells a joke so badly, and it is so unfunny that you cannot help but laugh out loud.

8) Pana Poʻo (Hawaiian) – The act of scratching your head in order to help you remember.

9) Kummerspeck (German) – The weight gained from emotional overeating.

10) Vybafnout (Czech) – To surprise someone by jumping out and saying ‘boo’.

A brief look at untranslatability – and how to get around it

Many translation experts subscribe to the view that nothing is exclusively translatable nor exclusively untranslatable, but rather translation exercises exist on a scale based on their degree of difficulty.

Untranslatable text usually refers to a situation where there is no direct equivalent word in another language. But a lack of one-to-one translation does not mean that an adequate interpretation cannot be found.

Experienced translators have a number of tricks up their sleeves when such a situation does arise.

  • Adaptation – this is also known as free translation, and sees the translator replace a term or phrase that has cultural connotations in the original language with a term that carries a similar connotation in the translated language, thereby putting the meaning across without the need for word-for-word translation.
  • Paraphrase – simply put, this technique involves using a group of words to explain a single word that has no direct equivalent.
  • Calque sometimes it’s just easier to break down a foreign word and give a direct translation of its constituent parts. Translation is often better served by offering a word that has a closer meaning, but by supplying both, a sense of the original style can be saved.

Different sectors in the world of commerce and research can carry with them an exclusive lexicon peculiar to their field. It is crucial that translators keep in mind the importance that a single technical term can make.

Translating scientific research

Scientific enquiry is based on rigorous research. But without an effective means of communicating that data, those months of hard slog will remain simply scribbles on a page. The nature of the scientific community today is that it is usually necessary to present your work in English for it to be widely accessible and make the most impact.

Poor grammar, or worst still, incorrect wording could not only affect a study’s chances or being circulated to wider audience, it could also call into question the credibility of a piece. It is always advised to use a trusted translation service in this instance. Employing translators with an understanding of science will avoid the chance of revisions that may misrepresent the research. The subtlety and sensitivity of scientific writing mean it is often best to have your manuscript reviewed by another scientist with experience in reading research reports.

Legal Translation

It is a hard enough process to simply translate from one language to another, but when your translation project involves specialised language such as is found in the legal sector, then extra special attention must be paid.

Translators of legal documents must first and foremost concentrate on accuracy. A poorly translated piece of legal terminology could mean disastrous results for the client, including the loss of money, incarceration or worse. It is vital that anyone tackling legal translation has a comprehensive understanding of terminologies and any legal systems involved. Difference in socio-cultural legalities could also impact on a case, so a varied knowledge of such is desirable.

Translators must not only display generalised knowledge of legal terminology, they should also have a working knowledge of statutory requirements, as well as the differing legal aspects between cultures, languages and regions.

The copy that needs to be translated may already be written to follow the legal regulations of its country of origin, or it may have been written with the target language in mind. Translator must be aware which the case is, and be prepared to alter the text accordingly.

Deadlines can be especially crucial in legal translation, so effective communications with the client is vital.

Engineering translation

Engineering, by its very nature, is a precise field. There is no room for error or approximation when dealing with the specifications involved in the manufacturing, engineering and construction sectors. Any inaccuracy in a technical translation could have catastrophic consequences, even fatal ones.

Much like science translation, those employed in this field of work need to have prior understanding of the topic to appreciate the subtle differences between the technical names used in different industries and in different countries.


With any form of technical writing, culture can play hugely important role.

Knowing how specific cultural features are transferred and communicated can be almost important as linguistic knowledge. Different cultures can communicate in drastically different ways, and discrepancies in rhetorical writing strategies, tones, formatting, and conceptual goals can have a tangible effect on the outcome of a project.

Industry translation is much more than word interpretation, and each sector throws up its own challenges and pitfalls. But with an effective strategy in place, and the right translation agency, all lexical mountains are scalable.


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