Untranslatables and Badly-translatables

Sometimes, there are things, which have one term in one language and require an entire sentence in another one. This is not only true for terms which are very nation-/culture-specific (ie: tropical nations having no word for iceberg), but also for terms, which you would expect the language to have. For example, according to several native speakers who are interested in football (British usage) or soccer (for our American readers), English lacks a term for “Tabellenletzter”. Despite claiming to be the country which invented the sport and despite having a relegation system, this simple term does not exist. Thus there is no Tabellenletzter in the premier league but a “club which is on the last spot in the league table”. I am not sure why this is. It is not as if England does not have struggle against relegation. However, maybe this is related to the culture. If a culture treats failing as, well, a failure and has a generally optimistic outlook on life, there might be a reason for a lack of terms which detail failure. Or maybe this is too Sapir-Whorfian. I do not even know how I could falsify such a hypothesis in a language.

This brings me to the topic of conlangs. I have written about how to create vocabulary, but how do you prevent creating it by accident? One idea is to have an expression which is used instead and document this one. Kenshuite He Mo Gie however uses something slightly different. Kenshuite He Mo Gie’s file is more a diary of the language than a reference of it. As such, when I want to document a glaring hole, which should be there, I am happy to write “TERM intentionally left blank” or something as direct to tell me to stay away from directly translating this thing. It probably is a good idea to have a private section of your dictionary with these terms.

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  • David J. Peterson  On November 4, 2010 at 11:30 am

    There’s no reason to have a separate word for everything. Just because a language doesn’t have a word for something doesn’t mean it isn’t important, or that it isn’t recognized as an individuated concept. For example, in English we have no word for the divider you put down between sets of groceries on a conveyor belt in a grocery store. Everyone knows what it is, though, and how to use it. And if one needs to refer to it as something, it’s usually called “the thing” (e.g. “Can you hand me the thing there…? Thanks.”).

    • rejistania  On November 4, 2010 at 12:41 pm

      Well, these things do have names, even though the common user of them does not know their names. In German, apparently the term for them is Warentrenner and in British English, it is “shopping separator” or “grocery divider”. According to this thread: http://dict.leo.org/forum/viewUnsolvedquery.php?idThread=684768&idForum=1&lp=ende&lang=de

      This thing is actually a bad example because people have to produce it and have to advertise it to the supermarkets in for example online shops, and thus a name is required. You cannot say ‘that thing over there’ in a catalogue.

  • David J. Peterson  On November 8, 2010 at 8:32 am

    lol No, “shopping separator” is certainly not the name (nor “grocery divider”), by any definition (at least not in America). I would certainly like to see a catalog that advertises them, though. However, I wouldn’t attach any importance to the name given to them in the catalog. That may be a form of jargon. For example, my wife works at a wedding hall that does all sorts of events (weddings, funerals, quinceañeras, business parties, etc.), and all such events, no matter what they are, are called “parties”. A wedding is as much a party as a funeral in their jargon. However, it would be wrong to say that “funeral” is one of the definitions of “party” in English. Similarly, more people use (and have to refer to) the thing that separates groceries than the people who produce it. Even if the small number of speakers who produce it have a name for it, that doesn’t make it the name for it, if you see what I mean.

    • rejistania  On November 8, 2010 at 12:57 pm

      wWll, language is the superset of all jargons used by different subgroups and as such, if a subgroup uses ‘grocery separator’ or party for any event, then it is in my understanding of language a valid, albeit niche-y usage.

      In that, it is similar to a Tabellenletzter in German which is also a term used by the sub-group of soccer fans. Or the Tabellenkeller (literally: [league-]table cellar) for all parts of the league in risk of relegation. Despite that, the corresponding subgroup of English soccer fans have no corresponding term.

      And of course, you are right, there is a sliding scale of words, there are the ones everyone knows (sun, house, cat), the ones which are understood by many people, but not virtually everyone (bookkeeping, institution, award), niche-terms (catenaccio, ghost goal, misfeature, foo, quux), those which only a tiny group knows (vinali tikira for third place playoff, FSX, spaaming, mediagate, various terms used only in one family*) and then there are things which are completely unnamed (the small silence when driving in the rain and below a bridge, the point after which an activity ceases being fun and becomes a chore, the team on the last place of a sports league). I wanted to emphasize that these last … holes exist and when someone finds them, sometimes, it is a good idea not to fill them. But you are also right that terms in conlangs are not understood by everyone. That is a bit of the charm of languages and after a certain point, these terms are to be documented for the respective conlangs. Probably including their usage (a rejistani would see a man in military uniform and just use one general, somewhat misleading term, an israeli might distinguish the various military branches and use specific terms).

      And for the catalogue: a quick metacrawlage found this: http://www.vkf-renzel.com/artgrp/17721

      * an example for something like this in German would be calling these big envelopes used to mail catalogues or plastic binders (including content) JuFo-Umschläge (JuFo-envelopes) because they are used to send Jugend Forscht (youth researches, a science competition in Germany) material and my brother and me particilated there.

  • kelemta  On November 9, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    Interesting, a topic I haven’t really thought about for any of my conlangs yet. Lately there has been a rash of linguistic posts of untranslatables, hasn’t there! I like the phrase ‘badly-translatables’ because it seems to me that the vast, vast majority of ‘untranslatables’ fall rather into that category.

    As for the discussion above, the comment, “Just because a language doesn’t have a word for something doesn’t mean it isn’t important, or that it isn’t recognized as an individuated concept,” basically sums up my opinions on the matter. Of course, it works the other way around too — just because something is important or highly recognisable in a culture doesn’t mean there is a word for it, which perhaps fits with the example given in that comment thread. Although almost all English-speakers (at least in Australia, UK, USA etc.) will have a clear mental concept of the bar used for dividing customers’ groceries on the conveyor belt, only the minority of people who need a word to discuss it in business settings actually have a word for it (most people would not know what the terms you give above are referring to, I think).

    Overall I’m not sure what my point is, though I know I have some proper opinions on the matter… I suppose basically that cultural importance or recognition does not necessarily correlate strongly with actual vocabulary. Which, in relation to this topic of conlanging, makes a lot more room for creativity (and confusion in deciding what words you want to translate in what way!)

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