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According the Danish linguist, translatability is guaranteed between unrestricted languages, and also if we
translate from a restricted language into an unrestricted language, but not vice versa
Not all words need to be translated. Some cannot. Some can be transcribable, but if there is no cultural equivalent,
whether it is translatable or not it still needs to be explained, just like a jargon needs to be explained to the non-specialist
in a footnote. Words, expressions or interjections that are exclusive to a culture, a religion or a jargon cannot always be
translated in a satisfactory way because the same thing does not exist in the other language's culture. In many cases such
words with no perfect equivalent are the words that end up being borrowed by the other language, sometimes with a
possible spelling adaptation to ease pronunciation in the other language.
Jacobson (1966: 238) (quoted in Wolfram Wilss, 2001) comes to the conclusion that poetry by definition is
untranslatable. Only creative transposition is possible. With this as a prerequisite, translation of poetry should and must be
Historically speaking, the activity of poetic translation has always been there, popular at one time and losing
momentum at another, though always being practiced. In other words, whenever human communication is necessary,
translation will live on and maintain a firm and fast stronghold. The reason is simple but unavoidable—we, as a nation or
a country, are not living alone. As long as we do not lock ourselves up, translation will be translatable, be it scientific
translation or poetic translation.
Translatability seems to be all the more necessary in a multicultural society as there is a struggle for dominance to
be observed in such a society. Although translatability may not be a mighty force in itself, it can trigger the attempt to
counteract political power, which the various groups in such a social set-up bring to bear in order to impose their own
cultural heritage upon other segments in a multicultural community. However, translatability exposes the politics
operative in such a struggle for dominance, and thus proves to be a counter-concept to both the politics inherent in culture
and the politicizing of culture as a whole.
Translatability aims at comprehension, whereas encounters between cultures or interactions between levels of
culture involve either assimilation or appropriation by making inroads into one another, trying to get out of a different
culture or the different intra-cultural levels what seems attractive, useful, or what has to be combated and suppressed for
whatever reasons.
Catford (1965) distinguishes two kinds of untranslatability, that is, linguistic untranslatability and cultural
1. Linguistic untranslatability, according to Catford, occurs when there is no lexical or syntactical substitute in the
target language for a source language item. For example, the Danish Jeg fandt brevet (literally “letter [I] found the”)
is linguistically untranslatable, because it involves structures that does not exist in English.
2. Cultural untranslatability is due to the absence in the target language culture of a relevant situational feature for the
source text. For example, the different concept of the term for bathroom is untranslatable in an English, Finnish or
Japanese context, where both the object and the use made of that object are not at all alike. (Bassnett-McGuire,
a. - Are you training for a race?
- No, I'm racing for a train.
b. Just because I am chased don't get the idea I am chaste.
These are examples of linguistic play of words.
a. The problems of the world are easily soluble in wine.
b. Pay your taxes with a smile.
These are instances of cultural play of words.
Translators deal with untranslatability by employing a number of procedures. These include:
• Adaptation - when social or cultural reality of the source text with reality taken from the culture of the target
• Borrowing - when the translator uses the word or phrase of the original, usually in italics;
• Calque - when the translation of an expression is rendered word-for-word;
• Compensation - when the translator adds elements to the target texts to make up for their absence in the target
• Paraphrase - when a word of the source text is replaced, in the target text, by a whole group of words that
explain a non-existent notion in the target language;
• Translator's note - when the translator breaks the flow of the text by an annotation that compensates the
A. Basic Causes of Untranslatability
From the sociosemiotic point of view, untranslatability is an undeniable reality, at least so far as the base units of
a language are concerned. Basically there are two causes underlying untranslatability:
1. The concurrence or combination of referential meaning (RM), pragmatic meaning (PM), and intralinguas meaning
(IM) in a linguistic sign in different languages is a matter of convention. The three categories of sociosemiotic
meaning carried by an expression in one language will often not coincide with those of a comparable expression in
another language.
And quite contrary to the traditional belief that the referential or cognitive content is always the most important one
in a verbal message, communication and sociosemiotic theories have indicated that any aspect of the message carried
by a linguistic sign, be it referential, pragmatic, or intralingua, and may figure prominently in a communicative
These two facts combined render it frequently difficult for the translator to find in the target language a specific
linguistic unit which corresponds to the source language item on all the three levels of sociosemiotic meaning, i.e.
referential meaning, pragmatic meaning, and intralinguas meaning (when it is fore grounded or salient). The Chinese
greeting “Nihao, Biaoge!”, for instance, cannot be rendered into English with both its referential meaning (one’s
male-cousin-on-mother’s-or-paternl-aunt’s-side-elder-than-oneself) and its pragmatic meaning (its phatic function as
a form of address) accurately transferred. After all, we would not greet in English a cousin of ours with something
like “Hello, my male-cousin-on-my-mother’s-or-paternal-aunt’s-side-elder-than-myself!” since the minute difference
the Chinese language makes between the children of one’s uncles and aunts against such parameters as male/female,
paternal/maternal, and senior/junior is simply not lexicalized in English.
2. Annotation, which is capable of elucidating virtually any kind of linguistic or cultural peculiarities, cannot be
unrestrictedly employed, at least not in most literary works, for the practical reason that it would make the translation
longwinded and cumbersome. (Just consider the case of movie translation, where annotation or other forms of
explanation are usually not possible owing to the time limit).
B. Problems in translation
The controversy over the problem of translatability or untranslatability stemmed from the vagueness of the notion
of meaning and a lack of consensus over the understanding of the nature of language and translation.
1. Many elements considered untranslatable just do not need to be translated. These are items at the lower levels of
linguistic description. Basically they belong to the norms of a language, which are conventionally followed so that
the message (the referential and pragmatic meanings) may be transferred; they themselves are generally not fore
grounded in meaning (unless the speaker or writer intends them to be so. The French numeral soixante-dix, for
example, is formed of morphemes different from those that its English counterpart “seventy” is formed, but that does
not prevent the two words from being inter-translatable, because they share the same referential meaning. After all,
it is the message these base elements carry instead of these elements themselves that are the objects of translation.
Grammatical forms, which differ from language to language, are in most cases obligatorily used. Their meaning is
normally predictable and hence not at all salient. The structure of the Danish sentence Jeg fandt brevet, to take
Catford’s example, follows the norm of the Danish grammar that the definite article is post posited. But this syntactic
feature is not the object of translation; what is to be translated is the meaning of the sentence. Since the same
meaning may well be conveyed by different grammatical devices in different languages, this sentence may be
translated into English as “I found the letter” with an adjustment made to the postpositive definite article brevet in
Danish to conform to English grammatical norms. The English translation is a perfect one, without any loss of the
meanings intended by the author. This so-called “untranslatable” (according to Catford) linguistic feature just does
not need to be translated. Thus at least parts of the “untranslatables” which Catford and other theorists place under
the category of linguistic untranslatability simply do not exist.
2. Since in each specific context some part(s) of the message or some type(s) of the three categories of sociosemiotic
meaning may carry greater weight than the others, the fundamental communicative purpose for the occasion will be
largely fulfilled so long as the most important part(s) of the messages or the most salient meaning(s) are properly
transferred. This means that the number of untranslatable elements will be pragmatically minimized when the
communicative situation is taken into account. The aforementioned Chinese greeting “Nihao, Biaoge!” , e.g. can be
adequately rendered into English as “Hello, Cousin!” because the phatic or social meaning (instead of the cognitive
or referential meaning) of the phrase is the most important one in this situation of greeting. Its correct transference is
sufficient for the establishment or maintaining of the required social relationship in this situation. It is for this reason
that Newmark (1989:14) argues that the translator has to establish priorities in choosing which varieties of meaning
to transfer, depending on the intention of the translated text and his or her own intention.
3. Those who claimed the impossibility of translation were wrong in their understanding of the nature of translation,
which they regard fundamentally as, in Newmark (1988:225)’s words, a “state”; what they are trying to deny is
actually the possibility of perfect translation. But translation (or, to be exact, translating) is more of a process than of
a state (Just consider the practice of translating and re-translating famous literature throughout the ages!). Only a
state can be perfect. Translation is but a process in which the perfect or, to be more exact, the optimal solution the
maximum equivalence of the translation to the source text (Ke, 1995:50) is (and should be) ever pursued by the