I'm reading
The untranslatables
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The untranslatables
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The untranslatables
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
20 April 2016

The untranslatables

“There is an hour of the afternoon when the plain is on the verge of saying something. It never says it, or perhaps it says it infinitely, or perhaps we do not understand it, or we understand it and it is as untranslatable as music.”
― Jorge Luis Borges “Ficciones”

Written by Alice Whitmore

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I am a translator. I say, “I translate novels.” The image, true to the etymological origins of the word ‘translation’—translatio, a physical transfer or ‘carrying across’—is one of clean transposition: a novel exists, it is a distinct entity with precise boundaries, and I am the mediator, the invisible vessel charged with bearing it across to a new shore. In reality, the process is a great deal more complicated. It begins with a reading so close it verges on psychology, and ends with an act of unusual power: a written interpretation, a creative record of my reading for which, ultimately, I alone must be held accountable.

So let me begin afresh by rephrasing the reply to my imagined inquisitors: What do I do for a living? “I re-write novels.”

I like the word “re-writing.” It invites questions, provokes challenges. And that, for me, is what literature is all about: the open-ended, the unveiling of new or long-uncharted passages.

Stories are infinitely re-told and re-tellable; they are re-interpreted, re-assimilated, re-written in a million different forms: as poems, songs, paintings, children’s tales, fantastic myths. In this sense—to borrow Jacques Derrida’s phrase—stories are always already translated. Translation, in other words, lies at the very core of storytelling.

Our stories are our histories. The word “story” comes from the Latin historia, which in turn evolved from the Greek ἱστορία: an inquiring, a looking, a witnessing. The word’s origins lie deep in the untraceable past, with the Proto-Indo-European word widstōr: “the one who knows.” A story, indeed, is also a knowing; stories are the tools with which we fathom the past and construct, however tremulously, a place for it among the present.

Most importantly, stories change. Like the symbols of the word itself, our stories move and adapt; they mutate. Eventually, like all living things, they die. But during their lifetimes, stories allow us not only to translate our thoughts and experiences into expressions, but to translate the past into a new, present form of experience—into a peal of laughter, a face misremembered, a fragile pain handled briefly, privately, in silence.

For reasons that are historically and ideologically complex, the concept of “the untranslatable” often goes hand in hand with discussions of literary translation. It is a concept worth unpicking. What does it mean to say something is untranslatable? Generally, it means there is no commonly accepted equivalent for a particular word or expression. From Buzzfeed lists (“15 untranslatable words you wish existed in English!”) to eloquent disquisitions on the untranslatability of poetry, the term crops up with alarming frequency. And yet, for those of us who have found our own way across the linguistic divide, the word ‘untranslatable’ doesn’t really mean much at all.

For example: If you are a fan of Japanese culture, you might pride yourself on your familiarity with certain ‘untranslatable’ Japanese concepts. Like wabi-sabi. Or mono no aware – the wistful awareness of the transience of beauty. This applies to all cultures; flamenco aficionados will be familiar with the Spanish term duende—the sense of soul and authenticity exuded by great dancers— just as fans of Portuguese fado will comprehend the unspeakable nostalgia of saudade. Students of Epicurean philosophy will wax lyrical on the Greek concept of ataraxia, and lovers of Tolstoy will know the intimate melancholy of the Russian word toska.

A little linguistic probing unearths unforeseen connections that help us further span the abyss. The Portuguese term saudade, for example, finds its echo in the Welsh word hiraeth: nostalgia for a home one can never return to, or that never was. This, in turn, recalls the French notion of dépaysement—the unease of displacement and exile—and its converse, the German Fernweh: a longing for far-off places, or “far-sickness.”

And then there are other terms, like anemoia—nostalgia for a time you’ve never known—a word belonging to John Koenig’s now-famous Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Koenig’s dictionary is a self-styled “compendium of invented words,” each aiming to “fill a hole in the language, to give a name to emotions we all might experience but don’t yet have a word for.” In labelling these emotions, Koenig simultaneously translates them into a kind of poetry. His description of anemoia, for example, reads:

Imagine stepping through the frame into a sepia-tinted haze, where you could sit on the side of the road and watch the locals passing by. Who lived and died before any of us arrived here, who sleep in some of the same houses we do, who look up at the same moon, who breathe the same air, feel the same blood in their veins—and live in a completely different world.

More importantly, perhaps, Koenig’s dictionary forges connections between people—connections amplified through the tendrils of social media—via the tacit knowledge that these (often painful) symptoms of the human condition are in fact shared, relatable, even commonplace; no longer unspoken or “unspeakable,” but valid and beautiful.

We all have stories. And we are all capable, in an imperfect but meaningful way, of translating the infinite lenses of human experience into something we can comprehend. The language of each human soul is unique, but never untranslatable… as long as we are willing to listen hard enough.

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

Let’s be friends. We'll tell you all the good stuff.