“Untranslatable” Gets Lost in Professional Translation

by Translation Guy on July 18, 2012


When I hear someone say “untranslatable,” it makes my tail stand on end and get all fluffy like Top Cat with a bone to pick.

Fact! “Untranslatable” screams “amateur,” the smug indulgence of some half-educated second-language speaker who figures that his target language isn’t up to cognitive snuff.

Wrong! Today I take my stand against these pernicious attacks on the professional translator’s ancient and noble profession, the second oldest in the world.

Declaration! Everything can be translated. Professional translators do it all the time.

First check out this cute Google video that’s so got my dander up.


Fellow Translators! Doesn’t that make your blood boil? (Allow me to interrupt this rant to offer kudos to Google for enabling online input in 80 different languages, an amazing achievement with far-reaching positive consequences for humankind.)

Had to mention that. Back to the rant.

Words in different languages mostly mean exactly the same thing, doh. So a gat is a cat in Catalan. A kala is a fish in Finnish. This because we humans are closely related, and think in the same way, even if our languages differ in the details. So the untranslatable 香(Xiāng) presented in the Google video translates quite closely to “fragrant” in English. As for it being understandable only in Mandarin Chinese, I wouldn’t mention that in the fragrant port of Hong Kong (香港), since Hong Kongers get touchy about that, because they use the same character to mean the same thing in Cantonese.

Word-for-word translations work just fine a lot of the time, but nuances will go missing. This is part of the reason why machine translations tools like Google Translate are not so hot.

In the translation trade, we have to go beyond word-by-word to get to nuance, which we call cognitive equivalence. That’s when translators expand their effort to get beyond a dictionary meaning to the heart of the author’s intent. It’s always a big issue for literary translators, but for nuts-and-bolts business services like us, it’s most evident in marketing translation, where we want to make sure we are pushing the right buttons for our clients’ customers. Sometimes the search for cognitive equivalence may even require a new turn of phrase in the original to get the message across succinctly, but we can always deliver one way or another.

Extra-special effort is also required for testing and assessments, where the same question in many different languages has to give all respondents an equal chance to get the right answer, so our clients can compare Macintosh to Winesap instead of apples to oranges.

It may involve parallel translations and harmonization committees, but it can always be done. We haven’t been stumped yet.

What is happening when people say it “can’t be translated” is that they don’t know these tricks of our trade. Or it may be that they don’t have the same grasp of the target language as the source, or just that they haven’t ever given it a serious thought. Translation is an acquired skill, which only a small number of bilinguals have mastered. But nothing is untranslatable for the pros. We prove it every day. Hooyah!

I will admit that there is nothing in translation quite like the original. But cluelessness is the essence of the human condition.

Any meaning eroded by translation is a rounding error compared to the way readers mangle an author’s intention as they plow through text at 200 words per minute or so. All the proof you need is in the comments below. So please share your thoughts.

Next time I’m taking on  “lost in translation,” the most irritating besmirchment of the translator’s trade there is. I have a plan to banish that hateful cliché from English for all time. Stay tuned…


  1. Wilber says:

    Nice piece of work, Ken, as usual. In the immortal words of Scarlett O’Hara, I’ll think about it tomorrow. Right now it’s beck ta vorrrk.

    Meanwhile, school yourself not to exclaim “hooyah” in polite Russian company, especially ladies. But you probably knew that. Czech ya L8r.

  2. Bryan S says:

    There are some things which I would consider “untranslatable”, things which can be explained but not translated. These include puns, double-entendres, plays on words, certain jokes, humor based on pop-culture references, and I’d venture that a lot of poetry is practically untranslatable in the cognitive sense, or that it is at least extraordinarily subjective what constitutes a good poetry translation. The reason is that all of these things rely on words which have multiple sets of connotations. They cannot be reconstructed properly in another language that doesn’t have the same distribution of connotations as the original. These are also the things that get “lost in translation” when people inevitably do try to translate them.

    • Ken says:

      That’s what translator’s notes are for.

  3. Sheila says:

    Not that I don’t agree withyou, but, I can understand the sentiment in the video as understanding author’s intent to ensure nuance is conveyed is an extremely difficult thing with translation, as the translator decides what the intent is and they may in the end be wrong. Although as you say, its more a literary issue.

  4. Paula says:

    True enough my friend, true enough. Quality translators never say it can’t be done.

  5. Carolyn says:

    See, fragrant does have the universal positive intent that the Chinese word carries, I see where you’re going with it but I think you picked the wrong word.

  6. Anit Shanker says:

    “cluelessness is the essence of the human condition”, I like that, nice turn of phrase.

    • Ken says:

      You read it here first, Anit.

  7. Untranslatable, I don’t know that word.

  8. Here here, nothing can’t be translated, those who disagree are just lazy or not very good in the first place.

  9. Completely agree, it only requires good understanding and a concerted effort to ensure anything can be translated.

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