Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
“Untranslatable” Gets Lost in Professional Translation
July 18, 2012 - By: - In: Translation - Comments Off on “Untranslatable” Gets Lost in Professional Translation


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…

LiveZilla Live Chat Software