8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words

iStock
iStock

Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.

1. BREF

Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.

2. SANTIGUADORA

Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”

3. HELLHÖRIG

The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.

4. VORSTELLUNG

Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.

7. TERTULIA

Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.

8. PAN/PANI

Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

23 Notoriously Unrhymable Words (That Actually Have Rhymes)

iStock.com/MeXaHuK
iStock.com/MeXaHuK

You’ll no doubt have heard the old fact that nothing rhymes with orange. But in fact, the English surname Gorringe—as in Henry Honeychurch Gorringe, captain of the USS Gettysburg—rhymes with orange. And so does Blorenge, the name of a hill in south Wales. But even if proper nouns like surnames and place names are excluded, that still leaves sporange, an obscure name for the sporangium, which is the part of a plant that produces its spores. So although it might all depend on your accent, on how obscure a word you’re willing to accept, and on precisely where the stress falls in the word (because sporange can either rhyme with orange or be pronounced “spuh-ranj”), it seems there actually is a rhyme for orange.

In fact, despite often finding their way onto lists of notoriously unrhymable words, all of the words listed here do have rhymes in English—just so long as bizarre dialect words and obscure scientific jargon are allowed.

1. Acrid rhymes with epacrid (in some pronunciations), a name for any plant of the genus Epacris, most of which are found in Australia.

2. Angst partially rhymes with both phalanxed, meaning “arranged in rows,” and thanksed, an old word meaning “given thanks to.”

3. Beige is pronounced so that it sounds more like the first syllable of Asia than it does similarly spelled words like age, gauge, stage, and rage. But that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of a rhyme; there’s also greige, the name for the dull color of undyed fabric.

4. Bulb rhymes with culb, an obscure 17th century word for a retort or a barbed reply.

5. Chaos rhymes with naos, a name for the innermost part of a Greek temple, and speos, an Egyptian tomb built into a cave.

6. Circle rhymes with hurkle, an old dialect word meaning “to pull your arms and legs in towards your body,” as well as both heterocercal and homocercal, two zoological terms describing the tails of fish that are either asymmetrical or symmetrical, respectively.

7. Circus has a homophone, cercus, which is the name of a bodily appendage found on certain insects, and so rhymes with cysticercus, another name for a tapeworm larva. If that’s too obscure, why not try rhyming it with murcous—a 17th century word meaning “lacking a thumb.”

8. Concierge is a direct borrowing from French, so the number of English words it can rhyme with is already limited. But there is demi-vierge, another French loanword used as an old-fashioned name for a unchaste young woman—or, as Merriam-Webster explains, “a girl … who engages in lewd or suggestive speech and usually promiscuous petting but retains her virginity.” It literally means “half-virgin.”

9. Dunce rhymes with punce, a dialect word for flattened, pounded meat, or for a sudden hard kick, among other definitions.

10. False rhymes with valse, which is an alternative name for a waltz, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

11. Film rhymes with pilm, an old southern English word for dust or fine powder.

12. Filth rhymes with both spilth, which is the quantity lost when a drink is spilled (or the spilling itself), and tilth, meaning hard work or labor.

13. Gouge rhymes with scrouge, which means “to crowd or crush together.” In 19th century college slang, a scrouge was also a long, dull, or arduous lesson or piece of work.

14. Gulf rhymes with both sulf, which is another name for toadflax plants, and culf, an old southwest English word for the loose feathers that come out of pillows and cushions.

15. Music rhymes with both ageusic and dysgeusia, both of which are medical words describing a total lack of or minor malfunction in a person’s sense of taste, respectively.

16. Purple rhymes with hirple, meaning “to limp” or “walk awkwardly,” and curple, an old Scots word for a leather strap that goes beneath the tail of a horse to secure its saddle (it also more broadly means "buttocks").

17. Replenish rhymes with both displenish, which means “to remove furniture,” and Rhenish, meaning “relating to the river Rhine.”

18. Rhythm rhymes with the English place name Lytham as well as smitham, an old word for fine malt dust or powdered lead ore.

19. Silver, after purple and orange, is the third of three English colors supposedly without rhymes. But there is chilver, an old dialect word for a ewe lamb.

20. Wasp rhymes with both cosp, a hasp for fastening a door or gate, and knosp, an architectural ornament resembling the bud of a tree.

21. Width rhymes with sidth, an English dialect word variously used for the length, depth, or breadth of something—or literally the length of one side.

22. Window rhymes with tamarindo, a Spanish-American drink made of boiled and sweetened tamarind fruit.

23. Women rhymes with both timon, an old word for the rudder of a ship, and dimmen, meaning “to grow dim” or “to set like the sun.” Woman, however, has no rhyme at all. (Apparently.)

A version of this list first ran in 2015.

100 Words Turning 100 This Year

YouTube
YouTube

In 1919, just a few months after World War I came to an end, the phrase World War 2 made its debut. The Oxford English Dictionary described it as "a reference to an imagined future war arising out of the social upheaval consequent upon the First World War." Twenty years later, the event wouldn't seem so imaginary.

Join editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy as she journeys into the past to dig up a whopping 100 words that are turning 100 this year in our all-new Mental Floss List Show. Whip out your OED and read along as you check out the full episode below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER