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Nataly Kelly


Ten Concepts That Are Surprisingly Difficult to Translate

Posted: 10/08/2012 8:17 pm

To most people, the process of translation sounds easy. Just take a phrase and one language and convert it into another, just like online translation tools do, right?

If only it were so simple! The reality is that even the translation of a single word can be a minefield, and a misstep can lead to disaster. The difficulty of translation also depends on what language you start in and what language you are working into, because some languages lack linguistic equivalents for concepts that are foreign to their culture.

What follows is a list of ten difficult-to-translate concepts taken from my new book, Found in Translation (Perigee Trade, $16)

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  • 1. INTOXICADO (Spanish into English)

    What do you think when you see this Spanish word? If you took Spanish in high school, you might guess that it means “intoxicated,” but you’d be wrong. While the two words have a similar linguistic root, the word in Spanish refers to a type of poisoning, such as i<em>ntoxicación solar</em> (sun poisoning) or <em>intoxicación por plomo</em> (lead poisoning). However, if someone says they are “intoxicado,” you cannot exactly translate the word as “poisoned.” It requires more explanation in English than it does in Spanish. Sadly, the mistranslation of this word as “intoxicated” resulted in a young man being given the wrong course of treatment and becoming quadriplegic. A $17 million settlement soon followed.

  • 2. CANCER (English into Hmong)

    How do you treat a cancer patient in a language that does not have a term for it? Doctors in the United States who treat members of the Hmong community often face this problem. The Hmong language does not traditionally have a word for “cancer” or even “cell,” making it difficult to even explain what cancer is. Medical practitioners and linguists at the University of California (UC-Davis) have created a Hmong neologism for cancer, mob khees xaws, but interpreters often have to provide lengthy explanations to patients, since the term is still not commonly used or understood.

  • 3. THANK YOU (English into Inuktitut)

    Usually, “thank you” is a phrase that can translated easily into any language. However, it isn’t so easy in Inuktitut, which has significant variations depending on where it is spoken. Julia Demcheson, an English-into-Inuktitut translator, provided some fascinating examples of this dialectical variety and how challenging this can be: <em>Qujana</em> means “forget it” in south Baffin, but it means “thank you” in Greenlandic. In some areas of the Baffin region, “thank you” is <em>qujannamiik</em> or nakurmiik, depending on the community, and in Nunavik—the dialect spoken in northern Quebec—it is <em>nakurami</em> or <em>nakurmiik</em>. In the Qitirmiut region, “thank you” is koana, and in the Kivalliq dialect it’s <em>matna</em>. It seems that there are nearly as many different words for “thank you” in Eskimo languages as there are for snow!

  • 4. MARG BAR AMRIKA (Farsi into English)

    In Iran, the phrase <em>Marg bar Amrika</em> is often chanted at rallies and seen on signs held by unhappy protesters. The phrase is most commonly translated literally as “Death to America,” but it actually means “Down with America.” Hooman Majd, a former interpreter for Iranian President Ahmadinejad, has explained that “Death to America” is far too harsh of a translation. As Majd pointed out, Ahmadinejad also handed out potatoes in exchange for votes, after which protesters chanted <em>“Marg bar seeb zameeni!”</em> They were literally saying, “Death to potatoes,” but it’s pretty far-fetched to assume that their intention was to kill the spuds.

  • 5. LUNCH (English into Spanish)

    “Let’s do lunch.” It sounds simple enough in English. In Spanish, the word that most people learn for lunch is <em>almuerzo</em>. However, in some rural parts of Mexico, <em>almuerzo</em> is more like brunch, because it falls between breakfast in lunch. In Spain and in many parts of Mexico, lunch is called <em>la comida</em> instead. But head over to Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, and Peru, and <em>la comida</em> means supper, not lunch. To confuse matters even further, <em>la comida</em> is also the word for food in general. And, as if this were not confusing enough, even though Ecuador borders both Peru and Colombia, supper isn’t called <em>la comida</em> there, but rather <em>la merienda.</em> In nearly every other country, a <em>merienda</em> is a snack. In other words, in order to translate even these simple mealtimes into Spanish, often, knowing just one type of Spanish is not enough.

  • 6. TOM MARVOLO RIDDLE (English into All Other Languages)

    There have been authorized translations of the Harry Potter books into at least seventy languages, and the number of unauthorized ones probably rivals that. One interesting challenge for every Potter translator is how to render the name of “Tom Marvolo Riddle.” Spoiler: as an anagram for “I am Lord Voldemort,” the name conveys an essential clue to the identity of the story’s main villain. While the translators of the nonalphabetic East Asian languages had to revert to explanatory notes, translators of other languages tried to outdo each other in their creative solutions. Some languages simply modified the middle name to arrive at a comparable anagram. For instance, the Bulgarian <em>Том Мерсволуко Риддъл </em>(Tom Mersvoluko Riddal) is an anagram of <em>Тук съм и Лорд Волдемор </em>(“Here I am—Lord Voldemort”). Other translators made more complex manipulations to the name. One extremely clever solution is the French version, Tom Elvis Jedusor. Not only is this an anagram of <em>“Je suis Voldemort”</em> (“I am Voldemort”), but <em>“Jedusor”</em> is pronounced similarly to the French <em>Jeu du sort </em>(meaning “fate riddle”).

  • 7. SAM I AM (English into Spanish)

    Aida Marcuse, an experienced children’s author and translator with more than fifty children’s books under her belt, was handpicked by an American publisher to translate <em>Green Eggs and Ham</em> into Spanish for the U.S. market. Aida plunged into the translation but became stuck almost immediately, poring over the book, desperately trying to find a key to the rhythm of the text. In her despair, she called her adult daughter, who had listened to her mother read the book aloud to her as a child and who had gone on to become a poet and a published children’s book author. After a bit of reflection, Aida’s daughter shared a revelation: “Mom, the keyword is Sam, because it rhymes with ham. In Spanish we need a name that rhymes with <em>jamón</em>. How about Ramón?” Thus Sam I am became Juan Ramón. With this cornerstone in place, it took Aida all of four hours to translate the rest of the book.

  • 8. LÍTOST (Czech into English)

    The Czech author Milan Kundera is known for being very particular about his translations. Given that he himself was deeply involved in his own translation between Czech and French, that may not be surprising. In fact, Kundera’s <em>Book of Laughter and Forgetting</em> questions the concept of translation itself: “<em>Litost</em> is an untranslatable Czech word. Its first syllable, which is long and stressed, sounds like the wail of an abandoned dog. As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it” (translation by Aaron Asher). Some describe it as a combination of grief, sympathy, remorse, and longing, but Kundera’s translators wisely followed the author’s instructions and left <em>litost</em> untranslated.

  • 9. SAUDADE (Portuguese into English)

    Many believe that one of the most beautiful words in Portuguese is <em>saudade</em>, which refers to something loved and lost. The world famous Fado music, known for its mournful singing, is linked to saudade. There is no exact word for the term in English, although some would liken it to a yearning or a longing for something that is no longer attainable—more intense than nostalgia. Others have called it the love that remains after someone (or something) is gone. The word has been used to express the sadness of those who disappeared in shipwrecks as well as the longing for home the many Portuguese sailors experienced. While no perfect equivalent exists in English, the Bosnian word <em>sevdah</em> has the same complex meaning and comes from the same root.

  • 10. JESUS (English into Chinese)

    Back in the early seventh century, a group of Christian missionaries began to translate religious texts into Chinese. However, because they did not have a strong command of the Chinese language, they relied on Buddhist monks to help with the translation. The Buddhists translated the word God by using the Chinese term for “Buddha.” The transcription of the term Jesus resulted in an even bigger problem. Due to the relative scarcity of syllables available in Chinese, it’s possible to use a multitude of different characters (each of which stands for the same-sounding syllable) to phonetically transcribe a single foreign word. Because there are so many to choose from, a translator usually tries to pick characters with a descriptive or positive meaning. The word that the Buddhist translators chose for Jesus was yishu, which sounds similar, but the characters they chose meant “to move rats.”


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