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Untranslatability is a property of a text, or of any utterance, in one language, for which no equivalent text or utterance can be found in another language.

Contrary to popular belief, words are not either translatable or untranslatable. They are only words, and these words are more or less hard to translate depending on their nature and the translator's skills.

Quite often, a text or utterance that is considered to be "untranslatable" is actually a lacuna, or lexical gap, that is to say that there is no one-to-one equivalence between the word, expression or turn of phrase in the source language and another word, expression or turn of phrase in the target language.

A translator, however, can resort to a number of translation procedures to compensate.

Translation procedures

The translation procedures that are available in cases of lacunae, or lexical gaps, include the following:


An adaptation, also known as a free translation, is a translation procedure whereby the translator replaces a social, or cultural, reality in the source text with a corresponding reality in the target text; this new reality would be more usual to the audience of the target text.

For example, in the Belgian comic book The Adventures of Tintin, Tintin's trusty canine sidekick Milou, is translated as Snowy in English, Bobby in Dutch, and Struppi in German; likewise the detectives Dupond and Dupont become Thomson and Thompson in English, Jansen and Janssen in Dutch, Schultze and Schulze in German, Hernández and Fernández in Spanish, and 杜本 and 杜朋 (Dùběn and Dùpéng) in Chinese — the Spanish and Chinese examples not being quite so faithful translations since the pronunciation of the two names is different, and not just the spelling.

Similarly, when Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay adapted Gogol's play Revizor (The Inspector General), as Le gars de Québec, he transposed the setting from Russia to his home province.

This is particularly notable in the translation of the names of Disney characters, as many names employ similar vocal sounds or puns (List of Disney characters' names in various languages).

Adaptation is often used when translating poetry, works of theatre and advertising.


Borrowing is a translation procedure whereby the translator uses a word or expression from the source text in the target text holus-bolus.

Borrowings are normally printed in italics if they are not considered to have been naturalized in the target language.


Calque is a translation procedure whereby a translator translates an expression (or, occasionally, a word) literally into the target language, translating the elements of the expression word for word.


Compensation is a translation procedure whereby the translator solves the problem of aspects of the source text that cannot take the same form in the target language by replacing these aspects with other elements or forms in the source text.

For example, many languages have two forms of the second person pronoun: an informal form and a formal form (the French tu and vous, the Spanish and usted, the German du and Sie, to name but three), while most modern-day dialects of English no longer recognize the T-V distinction, and have retained the you form only. Hence, to translate a text from one of these languages to English, the translator may have to compensate by using a first name or nickname, or by using syntactic phrasing that are viewed as informal in English (I'm, you're, gonna, dontcha, etc.)


Paraphrase, sometimes called periphrasis, is a translation procedure whereby the translator replaces a word in the source text by a group of words or an expression in the target text.

An extreme example of paraphrase can be found in the BBC reports of June 22, 2004 of the identification of the "most untranslatable" word. The word chosen is Ilunga, a word supposedly from a language in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The BBC article states that "Ilunga means 'a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time'."

Incidentally, the word Ilunga is of questionable provenance, as some Congolese (notably the Congo government) claim that it is simply a name, without additional connotations. See the article Ilunga for more information.

Another example of paraphrase is the Portuguese word saudade, which is often translated at a loss into English as "missing a person who is gone".

Translator's note

A translator's note is a note (usually a footnote or an endnote) added by the translator to the target text to provide additional information pertaining to the limits of the translation, the cultural background or any other explanations.

Some translation exams allow or demand such notes. Despite this, resorting to notes is normally seen as a failure by many translation professionals.


In the case of translating the English word have to Hebrew, Arabic, Finnish or Irish, some difficulty may be found. There is no specific verb with this meaning in these languages. Instead, for "I have X" they use a combination of words that mean X is to me. In the case of Irish, this phrasing has passed over into Hiberno-English. A similar construction occurs in Russian: here, the verb is replaced by a phrase that, literally, means at me/you/he/she/they there is. (Russian does have a word that means "to have": иметь (imet') — but it is rarely used by Russian speakers in the same way English speakers use the word have).

Another example is family members. English has different words for nephew, niece, and cousin (note the use of cousin for both sexes). Romance languages do distinguish between the latter, but not always between the former: for example Italian cugino and cugina for cousin (male) and cousin (female), but nipote (nephew/niece) for both genders. Moreover, nipote can also mean grandchild (a distinction between male and female can however be made by adding the male or female article before the noun). Dutch on the other hand does distinguish between gender: neef (male) and nicht (female), but it does not have different terms for nephew and cousin. That is, both a son of a sibling and a son of an uncle are called neef. Sibling is another word for which German does have an expression (geschwister) but Dutch not.

Conversely, English is entirely lacking some grammatical categories. For example, there is no simple way in English to contrast Finnish kirjoittaa (continuing, corresponding to English to write) and kirjoitella (a regular frequentative, "to occasionally write short passages at a time"). Another example for a tricky English construct would be: How would you ask a boy who has several brothers "which" (or "which-th") son of his parents he is, such that his reply would be something like: "I am the third son"? ("Which in order of number?") This is a straightforward construct in some other languages, which have an exact word for "which-th", such as Finnish mones, Latin quotus, German wievielte, or Dutch hoeveelste. Further examples derive from the fact that English has fewer tenses than Romance languages. As in Latin, Italian has for example two distinct declined past tenses, where io fui (passato remoto) and io ero (passato prossimo) both mean I was, the former indicating a concluded action in the (remote) past, and the latter an action that holds some connection to the present. The "passato remoto" is for example used for narrative history (for example novels). However, the difference is nowadays also partly geographic. In the north of Italy (and standard Italian) the "passato remoto" is rarely used in spoken language, whereas in the south it does and often takes the place of the "passato prossimo".

Another instance is the Russian word пошлость /posh-lost'/. This noun roughly means a mixture of banality, commonality and vulgarity. Vladimir Nabokov mentions it as one of hardest Russian words to translate precisely into English.

Another well-known example comes from Portuguese or Spanish verbs ser and estar, both translatable as to be (see Romance copula). However estar is used only with temporary conditions, while ser is used with permanent conditions. Sometimes this information is not very relevant for the meaning of the whole sentence, and the translator will ignore it, some other times it can be retrieved from context. When none of these applies, the translator will usually use a paraphrase or simply add words that can convey that meaning. The following example comes from Portuguese:

"Não estou bonito, eu sou bonito."
Literal translation: "I am not (temporarily) handsome, I am (permanently) handsome."
Adding words: "I am not handsome today, I am always handsome."
Paraphrase: "I don't just look handsome, I am handsome."

Ancient Greek φθάνω (phthánō) approximately translates like "I do something before someone else realises that I'm doing it".

German, especially colloquial German, has a wealth of small words, usually adverbs, that are excruciatingly difficult to translate as they do not have a grammatical function, but rather convey a sense in which the message is meant to be understood. The most infamous example perhaps is doch, which roughly means "don't you realize that...?", or "in fact it is so, though someone is denying it". Others are eben (roughly: "in a natural way and without much afterthought", or, just as roughly "That's what I said all along."), or even mal (from einmal, roughly meaning "when it's convenient").

Languages that are extremely different from each other, like English and Chinese, need their translations to almost be adaptations. Chinese has no tenses per se, only three "aspects". Also concepts like brother, sister, grandmother and grandfather don't really exist in Chinese, where they are always more specific: the words for brother and sister always specify whether it is the older or younger sibling, and the words for a specific grandparent specify whether it is the paternal or maternal one. Again, a concept such as sister that would include both older and younger sisters does not exist. Also, the English verb to be does not have a direct equivalent in Chinese. In an English sentence where to be leads to an adjective ("It is blue"), there is no to be in Chinese. (There are no adjectives in Chinese, instead there are "status verbs" that don't need an extra verb.) If it states a location, the verb "zài" () is used, as in "We are in the house". And in most other cases, the verb "shì" () is used, as in "I am the leader." Any sentence that requires a play on those different meanings will not work in Chinese.

Poetry and puns

The two areas which most nearly approach total untranslatability are poetry and puns; poetry is difficult to translate because of its reliance on the sounds (for example, rhymes) and rhythms of the source language; puns, and other similar semantic wordplay, because of how tightly they are tied to the original language.

That being said, many of the translation procedures discussed here can be used in these cases. For example, the translator can compensate for an "untranslatable" pun in one part of a text by adding a new pun in another part of the translated text.

Hofstadter's book Le Ton beau de Marot is devoted to the issues and problems of translation, with particular emphasis on the translation of poetry.

Foreign objects

Objects unknown to a culture can actually be easy to translate. For example, in Japanese, wasabi わさび is a plant (Wasabia japonica) used as a spicy Japanese condiment. Traditionally, this plant only grows in Japan. It would be unlikely that someone from Brazil (for example) would have a clear understanding of it. However, the easiest way to translate this word is to borrow it. Or you can use a similar vegetable's name to describe it. In English this word is translated as wasabi or Japanese horseradish. In Chinese, people can still call it wasabi by its Japanese sound, or pronounce it by its Kanji characters, 山葵 (pinyin: shān kúi). Horseradish is not usually seen in Eastern Asia; people may parallel it with mustard. Hence, in some places, yellow mustard refers to imported mustard sauce; green mustard refers to wasabi.

The list by Today Translations

Words hardest to translate (Today Translations, June 2004) was a list of words reported as being the world's most difficult words to translate. The British company surveyed 1,000 linguists to create the list. According to Jurga Zilinskiene, head of Today Translations, the difficulty in translating the words identified by the survey is not finding the meaning of these words, but conveying their cultural connotations and overtones. Not all of the words on the list were legitimate. Some of them turned out to be mistakes and hoaxes.

The following list presents the words hardest to translate as claimed by Today Translations. Daggers (†) lead to the definition of the word in the wiktionary project. The first is the absolute list, containing the ten words hardest to translate all over the world, independent of linguistic context:

  1. Ilunga: 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." However, there is no independent evidence that the word actually means what the translation company claims. When asked for confirmation by one reporter, representatives of the Congo government recognized the word only as a personal name. Furthermore, the translation company failed to respond to inquiries regarding the survey.
  2. Shlimazl (שלימזל): Yiddish for a chronically unlucky person. (Cf. Schlemiel). (NOTE. In colloquial Italian, it is very common to use the word sfigato with exactly the same meaning, in Dutch and German one says pechvogel[1], also used in colloq. German is the word Schlamassel, which refers to an unlucky situation. In Spanish, the word gafe has a similar meaning, though it is also used for defining a person who consistently brings bad luck to those around him as well as himself.)
  3. Radiostukacz: Polish for a person who worked as a telegraphist for the resistance movements on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain. It is not a real word, only a mistake or a hoax.
  4. Naa (なぁ or なー): Japanese word originating in the Kansai (関西) area of Japan, especially in Osaka (大阪府), to emphasize statements or agree with someone.
  5. Altahmam (التهمام) †: Arabic for a kind of deep sadness.
  6. Gezellig †: Dutch for companiable or convivial (a person), cosy (room, house, chair, etc.), friendly (atmosphere), pleasant (evening spent with friends). Similarly, German gesellig, having the first and the last two meanings. Yiddish heymish is close, as well.
  7. Saudade †: Portuguese for a certain type of longing.
  8. Sellaadhiroopavar †: Tamil for a certain type of truancy.
  9. Pochemuchka (почемучка): Russian for a person who asks a lot of questions (usually a child). (NOTE: The Portuguese word perguntador has a similar meaning.)
  10. Klloshar †: Albanian for loser. Could be derived from French clochard (tramp).

The following list shows the ten English words supposed by the same company to be the hardest to translate:

  1. Plenipotentiary †
  2. Gobbledegook †
  3. Serendipity †
  4. Poppycock †
  5. Googly †
  6. Spam †
  7. Whimsy †
  8. Bumf †
  9. Chuffed †
  10. Kitsch †

However, plenipotentiary has perfect equivalents in several Romance languages (for example, Portuguese plenipotenciário and French plénipotentiaire), as it is common with words of a Latin origin. Several other languages use a direct calque from Latin; for example, Finnish has täysivaltainen, and German Bevollmächtigte. Serendipity has originated equivalents in some other languages (for example, Portuguese serendipicidade, and Dutch serendipiteit). The claim that poppycock is particularly untranslatable is unsubstantiated. Spam has somehow become an international word, keeping its English form (originally a trademarked brand name anyway, which normally does not get translated). Kitsch is itself a German word that has spread to many other languages and is still in common use in the German-speaking countries.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia