Introduction to Untranslatables by Cordelia Novak*


During a recent book signing event in Central London (I thought I’d just drop it in here), I was asked whether I ever come across any words, during my court interpreting work, which I see as untranslatable.

‘Untranslatable’ is a term which had been getting language professionals hot under the collar for decades. 

One school of thought is that everything can be translated, because there are no untranslatables, only the limitations of translators’ competences.

Internet is full of compilations of allegedly untranslatable words from languages around the world. German traditionally hogs most space on those lists, which is not entirely fair, as the German language has a habit of stringing a number of words together, calling it a new word, and looking smug about it, which is simply not cricket. 

I do not think of words which do not have a one-to-one lexical equivalent in other languages as untranslatable. They can still be successfully translated, they simply require the use of additional words to render their meaning in another language. 

An example of such word is Polish ‘kilkanaście’ which means a number between 11 and 19. 

I have heard this word interpreted rather nonchalantly as ‘a dozen or so’, or ‘umpteen’, but if accuracy is of fundamental importance, it requires the translation to state ‘between 11 and 19’, or ‘more than 10 and less than 20’.

The concept of a number between 11 and 19 (or more than 10 and less than 20) is easily understandable in both language communities, but the exact word for it does not exist in English and requires descriptive translation. I do not consider this an example of an untranslatable word.

Everything I interpret during a trial is important, and it is highly desirable that I remain on top form at all times, but when the quality and accuracy of my interpreting matters the most is when the defendant gives live evidence to the court, and I become their voice. 

My language pair is English and Polish, so naturally my examples are drawn from my court experience with these two languages. 

During my working day, I come across numerous scenarios where subtle differences between the two languages conspire to trip me over.  

The Polish word ręka can mean either arm or hand. A separate word for hand does exist, (dłoń), but ręka is often used instead. Where accuracy matters, I need to ask for clarification, but before I do, I need to ask permission to ask for clarification, and possibly explain why I am asking for clarification of such a common word without raising suspicion about my professional competence.    

The English word nephew does not have a one-to-one equivalent in Polish, but rather the Polish language always specifies whether the nephew in question is the son of your sister, in which case he is your siostrzeniec, or the son of your brother in which case he is your bratanek.  The same rule applies to the word niece.

Whenever I hear the word ‘nephew’, which needs to be interpreted into Polish, I have a choice to run with the Polish word for ‘your sister’s son’, which of course has a fifty-fifty chance of being correct, or it might elicit a fully justified response from the Polish client, ‘I don’t have a sister’, in which case I need to intervene and ask the asker of the question whether they meant their sister’s son or their brother’s son, at which point the asker might wonder why on Earth this detail is relevant to the interpreter, which then brings on an utterly irrelevant diversion whereby the interpreter educates all parties about linguistic differences between sister’s son and brother’s son in the Polish language, distracting everybody from the matter at hand.     

Several other words expressing family relations open themselves up to potential confusion. Polish seems to have a larger number of words which specify a variety of family relations, drawing distinctions between blood and non-blood relations. In English, sister-in-law can mean either husband’s sister, or brother’s wife. Polish has a separate word for each one, whereby husband’s sister is szwagierka, and brother’s wife is bratowa. Another case of fifty-fifty chance of either getting it right, or being informed by the client, ‘my brother doesn’t have a wife’. Russian roulette rules apply.     

Moving on from general vocabulary to terms which are specifically likely to be used during court proceedings, I have learnt to anticipate them and to negotiate them accordingly.  

An example of this are the words inference and conclusion, both of which are commonly used by lawyers and judges during the course of a criminal trial. They are commonly translated into Polish using one word, ‘wniosek’ for both. This is likely to cause interpreting problems towards the end of many crown court trials, when the judge provides the jury with legal directions that they are obliged to follow during their deliberations. In cases where the defendant either gave a no comment police interview, or chose not to give evidence in court, or both, the judge gives the jury an ‘adverse inference direction’ and tells them that they can draw an adverse inference from the defendant’s silence, but only if they are sure that it is fair to reach such conclusion. 

None of the above examples are untranslatable.

What I mean when I say that a term is untranslatable, I think of scenarios where a concept itself either does not exist in another language, or is not as widespread, or has different cultural and historical connotations and implications in each language community.  

This proposition is veering dangerously close to the realm of linguistic relativity theory, which, in unforgivingly simplified terms, is the academic hypothesis that the language we speak affects, or in extreme cases determines, the way we think about and interpret the world around us. It has been a couple of decades since I last approached language from an academic, rather than practical perspective, so I am not entirely sure whether linguistic relativity is still a ‘thing’, or whether it has been dismissed to the archives of science, as a fatally flawed argument. I should probably google it.

Polish language is famous or notorious, whichever way you prefer to look at it, for their endless litany of progressive diminutives. 

Where English has a dog, doggy, a little dog and a little doggy, Polish has a separate word for dog, doggy, little dog, little doggy, tiny little doggy, tiniest littlest little tiny doggy, and so on. Polish diminutives multiply and gemmate ad lib, until they begin to dissolve in their own absurdity (pies, piesek, pieseczek, psiak, psiaczek, piesunio, piesuncio, psina, psinka, psineczka).

Diminutives serve several purposes. They are used when talking to children, shrinking the world and all its objects to child-friendly proportions, although child psychologists have recently condemned this technique as potentially damaging to children’s development.  

Diminutives are used, excessively between lovers, as terms of endearment. It is common to hear a man great his loved one with, how is my tiny little froggy today? To which he is likely to hear in response, I am fine, and how is my tiniest littlest doggy doing? 

The list of animals on this love talk register is endless. Apart from the more obvious little cat, little dog, little bunny, you are likely to be called by your beau a little mouse, rat, hamster, squirrel, tiger, bear, monkey, as well as a vast number of domesticated and wild birds names, including all common poultry species.   

Creative use of diminutives might become an issue for a court interpreter when they are requested to translate text messages between ex-lovers after the relationship had gone sour and the estranged  partners meet in court as warring parties. 

I am not saying that a vast assortment of diminutives available to a native Polish speaker is completely untranslatable, but their nuanced use cannot be easily conveyed in English, which simply does not rely on them to a similarly large extent. 

Two Polish words which come the closest to being untranslatable into English have their origin in the specifics of Polish post-war history, and the ‘resourcefulness’ of Polish people which allowed them to carve up a decent existence during Communist regime.   

Skombinować and załatwić are the words which describe sorting something out, achieving, arranging, obtaining, facilitating or organising something in a rather vague, possibly underhand, possibly borderline illegal, way. Both words have a long history of describing how generations of Poles living with Communist era shortages of basic products, from meat and sugar, to fridges and washing machines, resorted to various degrees of wheeling and dealing, ducking and diving to overcome the stark limitations of their lives.

Several English translations for these two words are available, and I have been using them interchangeably, trying out which work best, and they do work, they do their job as well as they can, but they fail to convey the connotations that are immediately obvious to every Polish person, but inevitably lost on the English audience, because sorting out, working out, fixing, getting something done, arranging or organising something does not convey the baggage of all the unconventional thinking and inventiveness that over forty years of Communist era instilled in Polish psyche.

Another phrase which arose from years of mastering these unique survival skills is ‘A Pole can’ (Polak potrafi). It is used nearly exclusively in an ironic, sarcastic way, which alludes to the abovementioned ducking and diving methods of negotiating live under Communism. 

English has its own list of similarly untranslatable words, the words so deeply rooted in British culture that a translation will always only scratch the surface and sound only partly correct.

There is a tight competition for the title of the most British concept ever. My favourite word for the trophy is awkward. I mean the actual word awkward.

Feeling awkward is the British default state of mind in social situations in the way that is unmatched in any other country on Earth.

An exclamation, ‘Awkward!’, is difficult to translate, because you can only translate the word itself, leaving behind the excruciating embarrassment, the skin-crawling unease, the palpable discomfort, the utter mortification it inflicts on a British person in the middle of an awkward situation.      

English is great in creating precise, one-word descriptions for specific behaviours or concepts. To translate each of them into Polish, I need three to five words. 

I come across such words many times every day, because English is so full of them. Sometimes, I allow myself a luxury of reflecting on the language around me, rather than rush to complete the next sentence. I allow myself to stop and stare, and admire the incredible agility of the English language.

Gaslighting, gazumping, brinkmanship, whiplash, scaremongering, warmongering, serendipity, cold turkey, are just a few examples of such concise, semantically pleasing words. Some of them are reminiscent the German level of untranslatability.

This is what it takes to render each of the above words in Polish: 

Gaslighting – manipulowanie czyjąś percepcją rzeczywistości

Gazumping – przebicie oferty

Brinkmanship – taktyka balansowania na krawędzi

Whiplash – odgięciowy uraz kręgosłupa szyjnego

Scaremongering – wzniecanie paniki

Warmongering – podżeganie do wojny

Serendipity – szczęśliwy zbieg okoliczności

Cold turkey – leczenie uzależnień polegająca na gwałtownym odstawieniu środka uzależniającego

Everything I discussed here is only a tip of an iceberg on the subject of untranslatables and untranslatability.  

Academically inclined linguists have probably begun pulling their hair by now, which is as good a point as any to end my musings. 

*Cordelia Novak is the author of a book on court interpreting, View from the Dock, available on Amazon.
I have it on good authority that Cordelia is currently writing a sequel, with the working title Back in the Dock. Publication date of the sequel is as yet unknown. 

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