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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11 Comments on “Is anything untranslatable?”

  1. bobmacdonald Says:

    Two spring to mind immediately. Following a suggestion by John Hobbins, I no longer translate the tetragrammaton. I even leave it in Hebrew script in English. Then it behaves as a proper name in all places and never gives a problem when combined with other monikers for the Most High. The second one is chesed and its related coinage chasidim. Sometimes I go to extremes of circumlocution to translate this and sometimes I coin a word.

  2. Peter Bekins Says:


    חסד is a great example. “Lovingkindness” is a terrible translation, but “loyalty” doesn’t quite capture the whole idea either.

  3. bobmacdonald Says:

    Lovingkindness is better than some. I have used ‘covenant mercy’ and for chasidim – ‘mercied ones’ – but no single word quite captures the commitment of HaShem to the world.

  4. Chip Hardy Says:

    Although a bit different of a problem, function words/morphemes in all languages are notorious for being “untranslatable”. The mapping from one language to another is always less than perfect, despite most beginning Hebrew students learning ב “in, with”, ל “to(ward)”, כ “as, like”, אחרי “after”, etc.

  5. Joseph Kelly Says:

    I’d say הבל in Ecclesiastes is untranslatable, but I suspect that Qoheleth was putting his own spin on the word. I think it likely that the הבל of Qoheleth’s own day was not sufficient to communicate his concept, and so he (re)invented the word, introducing it to new contexts or to familiar contexts whose juxtaposition was unique for his own day.

  6. bobmacdonald Says:

    re Quhelet’s favorite word – I think futility works really well. It cohere’s with psalms 39 and 62 also. Futility is what we imagine when we are fighting against the unknown infinite power of God and the apparent nihilism of death illness and destruction. How can we say there is anything good as the Hebrew writer does in Genesis 1. The word works well in Job also and matches the ultimate satisfaction in the story.

  7. dannyfrese Says:

    So I’m late to the party.
    Untranslatable word? No problem: את

  8. Phillip Stokes Says:

    The Arabic sentence-head particle ان makes the Subject of the Noun Sentence Accusative, strengthens the idea that the subject did in fact do the thing asserted, but is generally untranslated. Along with Chip, I’d just note the difficulty of assigning a single translation to Arabic prepositions, such as من في or عن which have multiple meanings depending on the context of the sentence. When combined with a verb, these and other prepositions create a special meaning that can also be impossible to translate literally.

    I thought that, perhaps, one example of a verbal idea that is hard to translate would be the verb سجد. While this is often translated in textbooks as “prostrate oneself,” it doesn’t capture the nuance specific to Islam. In Arabic, this verb would signify to a native speaker/writer the idea of a Muslim praying and prostrating in a specific manner. We can explain that process, but it would be redundant to list the meaning of the verb as “The act of Muslim prostration/prayer.”

  9. bobmacdonald Says:

    Phillip raises the issue of/with prepositions. In/for any language, many prepositions are difficult in use let alone translation onto another language. Just consider all the foo-fara over/concerning in in recent BBB posts.

    My ‘rule’ on translating thinks the translator into the same temporal sequence as the guest language. (read thinks transitively in the prior sentence). There is a certain drama in the sequential revelation of the thought in the guest that must be rendered (think slaughterhouse) into the host.

  10. Joseph Kelly-
    Michael V. Fox has a great article on the translation of הבל, “The Meaning of Hebel for Qohelet” (SBL 1986). I’m not sure if Qoheleth put a new spin on the word, although he obviously had a new spin on the world. His usage is similar to Isaiah’s (30:7; 57:13), Jeremiah’s, Zachariah’s, and in Job, Psalms and Lamentations (I exclude Proverbs 21:6, as it is probably not used with the same intention as Qoheleth).
    A point that must be made is that while any given word in any language has a range of meanings, that range varies from speaker to speaker. Thus, it might be a more fruitful venture to approach the determination of a word’s semantic field on an author-by-author (or maybe case-by-case) basis. Of course, many words have a very flat meanings and do not vary in meaning much.
    Danny- את is not untranslatable per se, it’s just that English doesn’t have a direct object marker. As such, it doesn’t need to be translated.
    Most “untranslatable” words can be found in the area of “concept-words” (I can think of no better term). Like מוסר , חכמה, בינה, אִולת, עָול, etc. Another sticky word is בליעל. A bunch of hapaxes are elusive in the definition hunt. All synonymous words challenge one to find difference between them (many times there seems to be none). E.g. קלון, חרפה, בוז, בושת, כלימה. S.D. Luzzatto has some letters addressing issues of synonyms which are very interesting (from its own merit and for the aspect of the development of Hebrew philology) (Igrot Shadal vol. 1 letters 9-12) and an article in the Haskala periodical Bikkurei ha-‘Ittim in 1819 (if I recall correctly).

  11. Joseph Kelly Says:

    Seow’s proposal is better than Fox’s. “Beyond Mortal Grasp: The Usage of Hebel in Ecclesiastes,” Australian Biblical Review 48 (2000). However, I think when Qohelet’s use of הבל is approached *holistically,* the semantic domain in which he sees the word functioning is unique to his own day and incapable of being captured by any English options available today. Comparisons to other portions of the HB only work at the micro level, not at the macro level.

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