How to deal with Untranslatable Words

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

While translating from one language to another, a translator may sometimes come across some words that they cannot find an appropriate alternative for. These are the untranslatable words – and any professional translator’s nightmare.

Did you know that there is actually a science that deals explicitly with words and meanings of those words; just think – even the simplest languages are still intricate enough that they have words that allow us to express complex emotions, all the frequent actions we do, our thoughts, ideas, and so on. Words are a combination of letters, and speech is made up of the sounds we produce, along with non-verbal cues. Apart from this other translation problems and solutions can be known.

And yet, there are times that we are unable to find the proper word to explain or express something just because we don’t have the right word. Often, the equivalent word does not simply exist in another language. Take the example of the word ‘mind-boggling’; while you may certainly find a word that means more or less the same thing, say in French, there really isn’t an exact word for it.

Comprehensive Guide to Translation Studies

The study of translation deals with both the theory and practical side of translation, interpretation and localization, and it draws greatly from linguistics, literature, language history, and so on. Initially, the purpose of translation studies was to guide newbie translation professionals in doing their work, but later, it evolved, and started focusing on what translation was all about. Today translation studies deals with translation theory, its uses, where issues may crop up because of it, and so on, without concentrating entirely on literary translation. Also you need more details about different types of translations.

There are several approaches to translation. One of them is the grammar translation method – it focuses on teaching a foreign language by first learning the rules of grammar, and applying them in the translation of sentences from one language to another.

Then there is word for word translation, which is self explanatory. It basically relies on learning a new language by translating to and from the target and source language respectively. Earlier the emphasis was solely on translating the given literature as an equivalent, and not to convey the meaning even if the translation is not literal; meaning, the purpose of the original text was not always conveyed.

Untranslatable Words

Also read the benefits of learning a foreign language.

In the latter half of the 20th Century, the emergence of the Internet and various technologies for translating texts accorded more importance to performing translation true to the source; retaining the true meaning, regardless of whether the words could be translated exactly or not. In essence, untranslatable words were not being looked at as an untouchable hurdle.

How to translate untranslatable words

Adaptative translation


In this method the translator has the freedom to choose the words they think are the appropriate equivalents – words that will convey the same meaning and context, even if it is not a literal word for word translation. It is most commonly used in cultural connotations – colloquialisms, jokes, certain emotions, and so on, which are only used in the source language.

Adaptive translation is very subjective and is not considered to be precise or the best type of translation – but in certain situations, that is the only way to go. Let me illustrate this with an example: in the wildly popular Harry Potter movie series, there is a scene in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets where Tom Riddle writes his name in the air in fire with his wand when telling Harry about his past – ‘Tom Marvolo Riddle’ – which he, with a wave of his wand, changes to ‘I am Lord Voldemort’. Now when this movie was dubbed into other languages, this posed a problem; obviously the sentence had to be translated, so the original name could not be retained. In Spanish, he became Tom Sorvolo Riddle so that the sentence could read ‘Soy Lord Voldemort’; in French he was Tom Elvis Jedusor, so that it could be changed to Je suis Lord Voldemort; the Lord Voldemort part could obviously not changed, so they changed his ‘muggle’ name instead!

Literal Translation

Literal translation

This of course refers to the exact, word for word translation, where the translator has little freedom to decide on the word that would convey the appropriate meaning. They have to find the exact meaning regardless of whether the original meaning or purpose of the text is maintained or not. It is usually used in scientific or technical document translation, and it can throw up pretty poor results. You may find that there are lots of errors in such a translation, and it is also bound to be very dull. It is a method used usually by novice or unqualified translators, who are not very familiar with either one of the languages or of the subject matter; it was also the method used in machine translation.  Find the best tips for translating legal documents.

However this can pose a huge problem on several occasions because there simply is no way you can translate certain words – haven’t you heard of the phrase, lost in translation? Let’s take a simple example of the German word ‘Krankenwagen’; if you had to translate it literally into English, the words would be sick car. But it actually means  ambulance! The French phrase, ‘joie de vivre’ has no English equivalent either; though we can explain its meaning, there is no phrase in English that can replace it. So, we often use those words as is. For example, may you always be filled with ‘joie de vivre’. Here are the tips to learn German fast.

To Sum Up

To Sum Up

The English language is famous for borrowing from other languages; words, phrases and even entire sentences, are freely used by even the most astute English litterateurs. Many words have their origins in other languages, mainly Latin, French, German, Spanish, and Indian languages – thanks to the colonization. Words like cash, shampoo, jungle, verandah, almirah, avatar, guru, mantra, bazaar, cashmere, catamaran, jute, gymkhana, cot, thug, and of course – Yoga, to name a few, have Indian origins. Most legal terms are still in Latin – ad hoc, ab initio, sine die, bona fide, compos mentis, caveat, de facto – the list is long. The German word Kindergarten is used almost all over the world! While some argue that this makes English looks weak, I personally feel the language is all the richer for its ability to absorb all these different words.

Also have a look at the tips dealing with translation feedback.

So, while some people may obsess over seemingly untranslatable words, it is actually something that adds to the magic of language. As long as everyone understands the meaning, it does not matter whether equivalent words exist in another language or not.

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