I Call Bullshit On “Untranslatable” Words

(And propose one of my own)

In the glib universe of internet listicles, an “untranslatable” foreign word is really just a picturesque concept without a one-word English equivalent. It might take a whole English phrase to do the work of one Spanish or Swedish word, but it can be done.

Hey, I’m not immune to the charms of the culaccino (Italian for “mark left on a table by a cold glass”), which recently appeared in a Medium article titled Eleven Untranslatable Words From Other Cultures. Or at least I wasn’t, until I thought about it some more, looked in a dictionary, and confirmed my suspicion that culaccino is a derivation of culo, which us Anglophones know as “ass.” Yep, what you and I assumed was a poetic little thing so like those romantic Italians to throw around in casual conversation just means “wet ass print.” Translate that.

The point is, whether or not we have a tidy little name for it, a ring of condensation is not an alien concept to people who don’t speak Italian. But I think there really are untranslatable words—words, at least, that require several paragraphs of contextual explaining and not a mere sentence. The one that springs immediately to mind is the Cantonese food word, 爽, pronounced “song”. (I can’t read Chinese, but I managed to find that character through some tricky googling.)

I most often use song to refer to the texture of a properly cooked noodle. Not just any noodle, but the Cantonese lye-water noodle, which is the traditional noodle in wonton noodle soup. The texture this word describes is related but not identical to al dente, and the reason it could never be identical is that there is no noodle in the Italian tradition with this exact springiness. The noodle is soaked in a solution of alkaline salts to produce its unique bouncy texture, and Hong Kong noodle shops live or die on the song-ness of their noodles.

Not “song”

(By the way, I can tell just by looking at the above photo, which I grabbed from Wikipedia Commons, that the noodles are not song. They are too loose; a properly-cooked noodle will have more curl and tension to it, and tends to pile up on itself instead of slithering down into the soup. This is what song looks like.)

Song can be applied to other bouncy, chewy foods, like squid or jellyfish, but where “chewy” often has a negative connotation in English, song is invariably a good thing. Then there are the figurative uses of song: you might use it to describe a refreshing cucumber salad that has nothing al dente about it but feels easy-breezy on the palate, and this is comparable to the way we use “crisp”: we have crisp salads and crisp wines, you see, and they both mean quite different things. And then there is an even more figurative usage of song, referring to a person who is frank, straightforward, low-drama, and generally cool as a cucumber.

Well, these figurative meanings are kind of a distraction: We have seen that “crisp” and “cucumber” can be used in multiple ways in English, too. The thing that truly makes song untranslatable into English is not its broad range of applications, but that it refers to a quality that the Cantonese prize in their food and most Anglophone cultures do not. Think about it: The Western culinary tradition is constantly trying to ward off chewiness, which is why meat is served bloody and seafood translucent, before the fibers have had a chance to seize up. The simplest way to translate song as it’s used in the noodle-squid continuum is probably something like “having the ideal chewiness”—but to know the parameters of that ideal, and, for that matter, to agree that it is the ideal, one has to be quite steeped in Cantonese culture.

And that’s what “untranslatable” means to me. It’s not enough for a word to be very, very precise; it has to be embedded in a whole big value system that an outsider doesn’t share or understand.

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