Is anything untranslatable?
Duane has hosted the most recent edition of Four Stone Hearth at Abnormal Interests. There were some very interesting posts from the world of Anthropology that I would recommend, but the most interesting to me was the last, Translating the untranslatable, in which Geoffery K. Pullam pokes some fun at the notion that languages have words which are “untranslatable”. Follow the link for the list, here are a few of Pullam’s comments:
“Who on earth ever argued that translatability only exists when source text words are mapped bijectively to target words, each with exactly the same shade of meaning as the corresponding source word? Does French jeune fille fail to translate English girl, and ne … pas fail to translate not? Does English fall down fail to translate French tomber, and look at fail to translate regarder? What kind of madness is this?”
“Your language may use a phrase where mine uses a single word, and vice versa. We can still come to understand each other perfectly.”
Now, his use of the adverb “perfectly” did make me cringe a bit, but you get the point. To the extent that languages code a common human experience, that experience can be mapped from one language to another reasonably well. One commenter made the interesting observation, however, that these “untranslatable” words are often suggested by native speakers (or perhaps researchers with a particular bond to the language) who see them as representative of a unique aspect of their own culture. Therefore, there is a certain degree of pride in the idea that the word is untranslatable.
What are some good candidates for “untranslatable” words from biblical Hebrew or other ANE languages?
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