Untranslatability: Exploring Language Boundaries and Cultural Insights

By Sama Imran Ilyas

Many people esteem that the metaphorical key to understanding another culture is through its language. By analyzing specific phrases or words that are not translatable across languages, we can ascertain what values and situations are most important to a culture. This concept of “untranslatability” has gained rapport in recent years. There have been a number of published books that deal with this linguistic idea, including They Have A Word For It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases by Howard Rheingold and In Other Words: A Language Lover’s Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World by C.J. Moore.

Benjamin Lee Whorf’s famous 1940 essay “Science and Linguistics” provides considerable insight into this topic. The most commonly known example may be the discussion of the word “snow.” In English, there is one way to describe snow. For Eskimos, there are many different words for snow depending on the context. There are words for “slushy snow,” “snow on the ground,” and “hard snow,” among other uses. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis claims that it is language that determines thoughts. The idea is that people of a certain culture would not tend to think about ideas or emotions that they are not able to identify or express. 

One argument against this hypothesis is that many people actually do have feelings they can’t describe. This happened to me after feeling oddly homesick but being unable to describe the exact sensation. Soon after, I stumbled across this blog from “Communicating Across Boundaries” and found a word that finally gave me solace. One of the most cited untranslatable words is the Portuguese word Saudade, “a longing, a melancholy, a desire for what was.” The word saudade provides a label for unexplainable feelings, but also direct assurance that another human being has also experienced the feeling. This showcases the power of language. Whatever the word, culture, or language, the end product of assigning diction to feelings or a situation is that of validation. These words and phrases connect you with other people and give you comfort that such a thing you are feeling or thinking of exists.

David Shariatmadaria, in an article for Indian paper The Hindu, suggests that where the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis fails, the idea of structuralism (and German linguist Jost Trier’s ideas) atones. That is to say that words can exist in a so called “lexical field” when they occupy a similar meaning. An example includes the aforementioned Saudade as well as the French dépaysement, which both allude to different aspects of homesickness. It seems then that while no phrase is completely translatable from one language to the next, they are not completely untranslatable either. 

There have also been multiple scientific studies conducted on the idea of untranslatability and how it pertains to cross cultural understanding. A study from Dezhou University in China about the effect of untranslatable words on cultural barriers found that the barriers are lessening as the world’s languages are becoming more integrated and cultural communication is being encouraged. The study also highlighted modes of compensation, or ways to try translating the words so that other cultures could better understand them.

While we can gain a myriad of benefits by examining untranslatable words, the study of these words must be done with caution. As Lucy Greaves in “Is Any Word Untranslatable?” from Guardian suggests, one must be careful not to ascribe characteristics to an entire culture because of one word. Studying these unique phrases must serve as an insight, but not as a definition, of the cultures they arise from. In all, it seems that while avoiding the risks of cultural labeling, understanding words and phrases in other languages can allow for unique appreciation of a culture, as well as help us better define our own ideas and feelings.

Sama Imran Ilyas is a senior at the University of Florida. She was elected into Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year. The University of Florida is home to the Beta chapter of Florida of Phi Beta Kappa.