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How to Overcome Untranslatability

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Untranslatability is the term used when there is no equivalent for a particular word or phrase in the translation process. This can result in what’s known as a lexical gap and can be the result of a lack of either linguistic or cultural translation.

In some cases, a text may use syntax or sentence structure that simply doesn’t exist in the language that it’s being translated into. This often means that transcreation skills are required rather than standard translation in order to overcome untranslatability.

At Language Connect, we have access to a team of experienced translators and transcreation professionals with native knowledge of the multiple languages, as well as their cultural nuances.

From a business perspective, it’s important to find a way around untranslatability to prevent any miscommunication with your audience.

Examples of untranslatability

Idioms and metaphors that are based on wordplay or old wives’ tales can prove particularly problematic in translations. However, it is not just phrases that can be untranslatable, but also single words.

Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of an untranslatable word is the German ‘Schadenfreude’, which refers to the act of taking pleasure in another’s misfortune but has no equivalent one-word translation in English.

Another example is the Danish word ‘Hygge’, which has no direct translation in English, but refers to the act of relaxing and feeling cosy.

And did you know that the word ‘have’ cannot be directly translated into many languages, including Arabic, Hindi, Japanese, Russian and Welsh?

It’s important to be aware that instances of untranslatability may occur in the translation of your documents, so you understand the reasoning behind some of the translation choices.

Solutions for untranslatability

Translators can use several tactics in order to overcome untranslatability:

  • Free translation: this technique sees the translator use creative licence to find the closest possible match for the phrase in question
  • Borrowing: this is where an untranslatable word or phrase is simply borrowed from its primary language and inserted into the text as it is, often in italics
  • Paraphrasing: this can be another common solution, drawing on some of the translator’s transcreation skills
  • Translator’s footnotes: when no other solution can be found due to a particularly challenging phrase, a translator’s footnote can be added to the end of the document providing an explanation

Discover more about the translation services available at Language Connect.

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