[lit-ideas] Untranslatable You?

  • From: "Andreas Ramos" <andreas@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Lit-Ideas" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Fri, 25 Jun 2004 11:13:22 -0700

THE MOST UNTRANSLATABLE WORD IN THE WORLD

Googly, Spam and gobbledegook have been voted among the most untranslatable 
words in the
English language, in a worldwide poll of a thousand professional translators and
interpreters. But the most untranslatable word in any language, reckon the 
translators, is
ilunga, a word in the Bantu language of Tshiluba for a person who is ready to 
forgive any
abuse for the first time; to tolerate it a second time; but never a third time. 
And I
suppose we all know that kind of person.

It narrowly outpointed shlimazl, a Yiddish word for a chronically unlucky 
person and
radioukacz, a Polish word for a person who worked as a telegraphist for the 
resistance
movements on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain. And both finished well ahead 
of klloshar,
the Albanian word for loser, which, perhaps fittingly, came in last place.

The most untranslatable word in the English language was reckoned to be 
plenipotentiary,
which even many native English-speakers may not know means a special ambassador 
or envoy,
invested with full powers.  Whimsy, bumf and serendipity (the faculty of making 
happy and
unexpected discoveries by accident) were other words among the top ten.

The survey was conducted by Today Translations, a London-based translation and 
interpreting
agency, which asked a thousand of its linguists across the world to nominate 
the words that
they found hardest to translate.  'My own vote would have gone to googly', says 
Jurga
Zilinskiene, the managing director of Today Translations, who worked as an 
interpreter
herself before founding Today and becoming an award-winning businesswoman. 
'People sometimes
forget that an interpreter, for example, must translate not just from one 
language to
another but from one culture to another', says Zilinskiene, 27. 'Sometimes, the 
equivalent
idea just does not exist in both cultures. I am from Lithuania, for example, 
and we simply
do not have googlies in Lithuania.' Indeed, confesses Ms Zilinskiene, although 
she knew that
googly was something to do with cricket she could not have told you for certain 
that it was,
in fact, an off-breaking ball with an apparent leg-break action on the part of 
the bowler.

Other foreign words to make the top 10 included naa, a Japanese word used only 
in the Kansai
area of Japan to emphasise statements or agree with someone, and pochemuchka, 
the Russian
word for a person who asks a lot of questions.

Today Translations uses a worldwide network of over 1,500 professional 
linguists to provide
translation and interpreting services. After asking a thousand of this network 
to nominate
words that were problematic to translate, it then asked 50 of them to vote for 
just one of
the top contenders. Linguists taking part in the poll were native speakers of 
languages
ranging from English and French to Turkish, Ukranian, Chinese, Dari, Farsi, 
Amharic, Pushto,
Somali, Tamil and many others.

THE RESULTS IN FULL

. THE TEN FOREIGN WORDS THAT WERE VOTED HARDEST TO TRANSLATE
1 ilunga [Tshiluba word for a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the 
first time;
to tolerate it a second time; but never a third time. Note: Tshiluba is a Bantu 
language
spoken in south-eastern Congo, and Zaire]
2 shlimazl [Yiddish for a chronically unlucky person]
3 radioukacz [Polish for a person who worked as a telegraphist for the 
resistance movements
on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain]
4 naa [Japanese word only used in the Kansai area of Japan, to emphasise 
statements or agree
with someone]
5 altahmam  [Arabic for a kind of deep sadness]
6 gezellig [Dutch for cosy]
7 saudade [Portuguese for a certain type of longing]
8 selathirupavar  [Tamil for a certain type of truancy]
9 pochemuchka [Russian for a person who asks a lot of questions]
10 klloshar [Albanian for loser]

. THE TEN ENGLISH WORDS THAT WERE VOTED HARDEST TO TRANSLATE
1 plenipotentiary
2 gobbledegook
3 serendipity
4 poppycock
5 googly
6 Spam
7 whimsy
8 bumf
9 chuffed
10 kitsch

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