In the course of my doctoral research on the untranslatable in the French translations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, I was surprised to see how much of the book precisely was untranslatable, though not for the reasons I had imagined. Yes, the book contains many challenges to translation, such as the puns, the wordplays and the parodies, but those problems were not what caught my attention. What I was interested in where the real things — like custard, shingle, miles or turtle soup — that did not exist in my own culture. I became increasingly fascinated with the idea that some items exist in one culture and no other and that, as a consequence, they can only be expressed in the language spoken by said culture. I fell victim to what Katie Fox calls “the ethnographic dazzle,” a form of amazement at the vastness of the realm of cultural peculiarities.
I was not the only one whose imagination was triggered by the idea that some cultural items were so unique that they could not be translated. In the few years that followed my initial interest for the matter, I noticed that more and more newspapers and magazines published articles covering the untranslatable. I brushed it off as a manifestation of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon and didn’t think twice about it, until my acquaintances started to ask me about my research and kept bringing up the same examples of cultural items once I had told them what I was working on. “Oh, you’re researching the untranslatable? Like hygge?” was the most common reaction. The second most cited example was “schadenfreude”. Those untranslatable tokens also were very popular with what looked like an infinite series of listicles invariably titled “Ten Untranslatable Words You Should Know” whose argument always seemed to be “Wow, foreigners are weird lol.”
The problem with hygge and schadenfreude is precisely that they are not, in fact, completely untranslatable. At least, it is what I argue in my dissertation (we’ll see how my supervisor and jury like it in a couple of weeks). “Oh, but there is no word in English that corresponds to those words, so surely they must be impossible to translate,” I’ll hear you interject, and you’d be right — if your idea of translation is a substitution of one word in one language to another word in another language. Fortunately, as any translator will tell you, translation is not that at all. Translation, as the subtle art of conveying ideas both in their denotation and connotation to a different language within a different system, is an instance of mediation between two cultures. It is, if you like, a constant negotiation between two entities in which the translator is the troubleshooter.
Hear me out: the fact that your language doesn’t have an equivalent to schadenfreude doesn’t mean that you are incapable of experiencing the feeling it describes. Surely, when that bastard Pete from accounting spilt coffee all over himself, you suddenly found yourself enveloped in a heartfelt feeling of satisfaction — of joy, really. Same when that kid from the neighbourhood who always litters (no matter how many times you’ve told him to throw his papers in the bin that’s literally two feet away, damnit!) hit the curve and fell off his bike, your first instinct wasn’t to check if he was all right; it was to suppress that smile on your face. Congratulations are in order, then: you have experienced schadenfreude, the pleasure derived from other people’s misfortune. It’s the reason why so many of us enjoy video compilations such as “Best Fails of the Year” or “100 Epic Fails.” We just can’t help it. And yet, for speakers of many languages, there is simply no word to express that satisfaction.
The same goes for hygge, the Danish well-being that’s been all the rage in home decor Pinterest boards and cookbooks alike for a good two years now. Do you need to be Danish to enjoy sipping tea and eating cinnamon buns by the hearth, cosily wrapped up in a knitted blanket? No, you don’t. And yet, your language probably doesn’t have a word for it. But the absence of an equivalent word does not equate the absence of the experience, nor the impossibility to understand and describe it by a different phrasing. Indeed, even if you had never heard of schadenfreude or hygge before reading this text, you would still be able to relate to their meaning, and you would be able to explain them to someone else thanks to your own experience.
Nonetheless, it is not the case for all untranslatable items. Last year, I was selected to present a paper at a conference at Trinity College (Dublin), and I had been looking for an example of cultural item that couldn’t be translated which would be foreign to all the participants who were attending the panel. A quick look at the guest list informed me that there were people from many origins and who spoke many different languages (those things are somewhat exponential when dealing with a crowd of translators), so it would be difficult to find one thing that wouldn’t sound familiar to any of them. Until I realised I was the only Belgian. I then set to explore my own culture in order to find an item that would truly be completely alien to everyone involved but me. That’s when I decided I would introduce them to the cougnou.
In the French-speaking part of Belgium, where I live, the cougnou is a sort of bread that we bake during Advent (the period that precedes Christmas). It is made of flour, milk, yeast, sugar and either raisins or (the complete heresy!) chocolate chips. It is shaped like a baby to remind us of the birth of Christ. In a form of symbolic cannibalism, we enjoy it with a nice cup of hot chocolate. Cougnou being a pastry that exists in Belgian culture, and in Belgian culture only, it is an item that can be labelled as a cultural singularity. And I am fairly sure you see what I am getting at with this: cougnou is untranslatable. If I had to transfer cougnou in an English translation of a Belgian text, I’d be left with a series of choices, ranging from the complete functional adaptation to British culture (“Christmas pudding”) to the complete retention in which I would simply say “cougnou” without any further explanation — and a dozen of other strategies in between.
Whatever I did, though, I would not be translating cougnou. I would be importing, transcribing or explaining it, but I wouldn’t be translating it. Because you cannot translate what is untranslatable; that’s why I’d rather use the verb “to transfer” when it comes to helping foreign cultural items find a way into a different language, even if it is done within the broader context of a translation, thank you very much. Just as I couldn’t translate schadenfreude or hygge to English without having to either give an explanation (footnote, parenthesis, periphrasis, etc.) or downplay their cultural significance (hygge is and remains a part of Danish culture and translating it by “cosiness” leaves out the Danish aspect of it entirely), transferring cougnou remains a very difficult endeavour, but for different reasons.
Imagine that you’ve been abducted by friendly aliens (it was an accident, really, they were just trying to collect samples of rocks, but you happened to be standing near very interesting pebbles and the beaming process isn’t as precise as you’d think) who decide to take you to their planet to show you a good time. They point at their purple sky and go “blerg.” Then they point at your purple socks and go “blerg.” At some point, you are going to conclude that “blerg” means “purple” in Alienese. Later, during a stroll around the capital, you see a young couple passionately interlocking five of their front tentacles, and your guide says “kifter.” Though you’re not familiar with the process of interlocking tentacles, front or otherwise, you do understand the ideas of love and kissing, so you assume that “kifter” means “new love kiss” or something like that.
Of course, before driving you home, your hosts insist that you should stay for dinner (it is a long drive to earth, after all, and it is common courtesy to feed your guests in all cultures), and that’s where you’re baffled. That blue thing tastes almost exactly like a gaseous version of Caribbean rum that would have been plunged for exactly twelve minutes into a solution made of white chocolate and nose spray before being fried in goose fat, yet, it has the firmness of sirloin steak and a faint smell of new car. You’ve never eaten or seen anything like it before. “Ratch,” your hosts say. “Ratch,” you repeat, without knowing what to make of that new word, or of any information related to the thing you’re eating (“It flies under water,” says Klop; “It’s very difficult to cook,” adds Mgerick; “It doesn’t taste the way it used to,” complains Att). You promise to stay in touch and you go home happy, but puzzled.
I think the important parameter to take into account when discussing whether a cultural item is translatable or untranslatable is relatability. Can I, as a speaker of a language, relate to the experience that’s wrapped in the meaning of a foreign word without modifying said meaning? In other words, do I need to speak Alienese to recognise the kisses that are exchanged at the beginning of a love story (as opposed to, say, the kisses after twenty years into the relationship)? Can I relate to the thrill that comes with kissing someone for the first time, even if my language doesn’t have a specific word to describe the phenomenon? Sure I can. But can I describe ratch (or cougnou, for that matter) without leaving out or giving any information that would alter the exact definition of the taste, colour, smell or effect? I’d rather not try; I wouldn’t want to upset Klop or Mgerick — and certainly not Att.
And that’s the real problem with untranslatable items: they’re not a monolithic group of words that you can stuff into one single drawer. Some of them are deemed untranslatable only because they do not have a lexical equivalent in another language, like schadenfreude and hygge, yet they do describe universal or quasi-universal attitudes/phenomena. Their untranslatability simply is the result of the absence of corresponding words in another language’s lexicon. Some other untranslatables, on the other hand, like cougnou, are considered as such because they are unrelatable — it’s not a word that’s missing; it’s the entire experience. And those two sides of the untranslatable coin are very different indeed. After all, you knew the smell of earth after the rain before you knew the word “petrichor,” which means a lexical gap is just that — a gap.
This idea that you can feel and experience things without having a word to name them is interesting, because it challenges some of the worst theories of linguistics, including but not limited to the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which postulates that your worldview depends on your language, and that a language determines the characteristics of the culture in which it is spoken. The real untranslatables, on the other hand, those that correspond to experiences that are so unique to a culture and its language that they are impossible to relate to in another culture and another language, are the ones on which we should focus, because switching the interest from lexical gaps to cultural uniqueness would make it possible for the debate to center on celebrating otherness instead of ostracising it. At least, I hope my supervisor agrees.
Text © Justine Houyaux