In Praise of Untranslatability

Cole Swensen

I’ve been writing a lot of nano-essays lately (essays under 100 words), and this one seemed an appropriate way to begin: 


There’s a cult—relatively unknown but actually quite numerous—of followers of the intentionally untranslatable, founded upon the principle that “if it could be translated, why write it?” In short, if something can be translated, it’s proof that one is working, not in language, but rather in idea, concept, image, etc., and therefore the work may lack the immediacy to which many poets aspire. This is especially true of titles. There are many of us who only translate books with untranslatable titles—otherwise you’ve got nothing to start with.

So, beginning with the notion of the untranslatable, not as a negative, but as a positive, as enabling, I want to think a moment about where we encounter the untranslatable.

An initial response: everywhere. Though we’re often unaware of it, it fissures its way through all genres of literature, modes of speech, and daily language practices, running the gamut from the global to the granular. 

One global issue is that of ethics. Acknowledging untranslatability honors the integrity and even the sovereignty of the untranslatable element; it honors its haecceity. Which in turn, suggests the flip-side: what damage do we do to things when we translate them? And what do I mean by things there? For we don’t translate things; we translate words. And yet translating the word for something does have some effect on the thing itself. 

This is an issue that touches all translation, but it’s particularly crucial in relation to endangered and/or disappearing languages. Translation is a threat to them because the assumption of translatability implies that languages can be regarded as redundant. In the cases of languages with millions of speakers, this implication makes little practical difference, but in regard to those that have dwindling numbers, translation risks contributing to their demise, and thus to the extinction of all the possibilities of expression, reflection, sensation, etc., that are unique to that language. In short, what damage do we do to an endangered language by effectively saying that what it has to say can be said by others?

There are 3,045 endangered languages today. As there are 7,150 languages currently spoken, the percentage that are endangered is 42. By far the largest category is indigenous languages. These numbers are constantly changing as languages die (roughly averaged out, one language dies every two weeks) and as, more rarely, new ones are discovered, and though various sources count differently, most give numbers very close to these. These particular statistics come from the website of Ethnologue, an encyclopedia that catalogues world languages. Some linguists compare shrinking language diversity to shrinking biodiversity and warn that it may impoverish human mental evolution, which is easily imaginable when we consider the aforementioned modes of thought, insight, and perspective that are dying with them.  Mental, imaginative, and affective options are dramatically narrowing, and translation is contributing to that. And though, for endangered languages, translation is impoverishment, it’s also, of course, an untenable position to put into practice, as it’s vital that the voices of the speakers of endangered languages be heard beyond their limited numbers, though I think the point is nonetheless worth keeping in mind. 

But backing off from that huge and irresolvable question, there are untranslatable categories within the practices and forms of every language—and I don’t mean to say that we don’t translate them; we do all the time, but I’m interested today in focusing on the range and nature of these untranslatable aspects rather than on the solutions that we find for them, in order to see what untranslatability itself might suggest about language.

A simple place to start would be with the deictic—those words whose meanings are dependent on the time and place of their utterance. Now, for instance, never means the same thing twice in English, so how can such an unstable, slippery designator ever be stabilized enough to translate? The best you can do is to replace it with the analogous counter for an equally unstable referent in the arrival language. And there are more deictics than you’d think at first thought: many of the words we use to talk about time, ago for instance, and today, and last week, and many words that relate to space, such as here and there and behind you, as well all the pronouns. Not only does I mean something different to each person who utters it, but if you, like I, question the notion of a stable subjectivity, it means something different literally every time it’s said. And all the cultural elements that come together to make an English I different from an American or an Australian I certainly make it impossible to equate it with a French je, an Arabic ‘ana, or a Hindi mein. So though we routinely translate these words, we’re just performing a bit of sleight of hand, a dance of sliding screens, creating a contract between translator and reader according to which we agree to ignore complex incommensurabilities in favor of a vague sense of affinity.

Another huge category is the proper name, untranslatable because its force is in its sound. My name, which happens to be Cole, may retain faint historical and familial echoes, which one might say are kinds of meanings, and yet those meanings are so backgrounded that, as with most names, we can say that it’s strictly a sound-object. Dealing with family names is more complex, for they often do contain some vestige of concrete information—Swensen means “son of Sven” and, for that matter, Cole, which is also a common family name, is related to “agriculteur” or farmer, while Fletcher means the one who puts the feathers on the arrows, Dubois means “of the woods,” and Dwibedy means one who has mastered two of the vedas. But the more a name has (usually long-buried) connections to information, the more ridiculous it would be to translate it into that information. Its name-function has compressed the sounds into a solid object that can no longer, in relation to the named, function as its constituent parts. 

So that’s all right, but then when you get to proper names that also amount to descriptions, for instance the names of many institutions, it gets trickier. Just a quick example from the art world: When faced with a document that includes reference to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Paris, if I translate that as “the fine arts museum of Paris,” I’ve turned a proper name into a description. If I capitalize it, does that turn it back into a proper name? But if so, how can it be the name of a French museum if it’s in English? As I’m translating for an English readership, I don’t worry about leaving it in French because “Musée des Beaux-Arts” is transparent to most of my readers, but when the document refers to Mouseío Kalón Technón Athinón or Muzej likovnih umjetnosti Zagreb, I know that, quite likely, most of my readers will not be able to fully access it, so, do I translate the Greek and Croatian versions of “fine arts museum,” but not the French? Not even broaching the issue of inconsistency, I’m deeply uncomfortable with the presumptions I seem to be making about the various literacies of my readership. So, there we have an example of an untranslatable category, the proper name, that raises any number of prickly practical and ethical issues.

Wandering further among the field of untranslatables, we soon arrive at the world of the onomatopoetic, another realm of pure sound. A book I’m currently translating, Récuperer by Vincent Broqua, includes a section on relative onomatopoeias. He asked people of various cultures and languages (and actually, I asked a lot of them too, which is an example of how the translator’s role can twist into unexpected forms of collaboration) we asked how certain sounds were pronounced and written. One might think that onomatopoeia would also need no translating because it’s the sound itself, and yet different languages seem to hear the same sounds remarkably differently.

Here are examples of things on Broqua’s list:

A clock ticking
A knock at the door
A train
A car engine
A dog barking

The sound of:
A chicken
A duck
A crow
A donkey
A frog
A car horn
Water dripping

How do you translate:
Chichi (as in overtly fussy)
Yum yum (as in food being eaten)
Thump thump (as in heartbeats)
Tsk tsk (as in disapproval)
Ding dong (as in a bell ringing)

We asked people who spoke Arabic, Spanish, Danish, Hebrew, German, Italian, Sanskrit, Fijian, Hindi, Igbo, and Chinese. Looking the over the results, the range is marvelous and, in itself, constitutes a strong argument for untranslatability.

Here are just a few: 

A knock at the door:
Igbo: kpa-kpa m
Fijian: tuki! tuki! tuki!
Hindi: khat-khat
Danish: Bank! Bank!
Moroccan Arabic: taq taq
Sanskrit: tad
German: klopf, klopf
Hebrew: took took took

A dog’s bark: 
Igbo: hoi-hoi
Fijian: Apph! Apph!
Hindi: bhonk
Danish: VOV VOV or VUF VUF
Moroccan Arabic: haou haou
German: wau wau /wuff wuff
Hebrew: hav hav

A heartbeat:
Igbo: gbim gbim
Fijian: paaamu! paaamu!
Hindi: Dhak Dhak
Moroccan Arabic: poum poum
German: poch poch
Hebrew: toodoom toodoom

A bell ringing:
Igbo: gbom gbom
Fijian: qiri taqiri na lali
Hindi: tan tan
Danish: ding dong
Sanskrit: kiṅkiṇi
German: klingeling

These are instances of what we might call “pure onomatopoeia,” but the phenomenon plays a role in many instances in which sound equals content. Children’s language is full of them. The rhymes and jingles that go with children’s games such as jump-rope, hopscotch, and jacks frequently employ such language. 

For example, this jump-rope rhyme:
Miss Lucy had a baby.
She named him Tiny Tim.
She put him in the bathtub
To see if he could swim.
He drank up all the water.
He ate up all the soap.
He tried to eat the bathtub,
But it stuck inside his throat.

Miss Lucy called the doctor (Second jumper comes in.)
The doctor called the nurse. (Third jumper comes in.)
The nurse called the lady
With the alligator purse. (Fourth jumper comes in.)
“Mumps,” said the doctor.
“Measles,” said the nurse.
“Nothing,” said the woman
With the alligator purse.

It goes on for a few more stanzas, but, though there is “semantic meaning,” that meaning is not the point; the point is entirely the sound—a rhythm you can bounce to and a rhyme that seals that rhythm in—for rhyme can work like searing the meat first when you’re making a stew—it seals the rhythm in tightly, constricting and reinforcing it. Needless to say, a “normal translation” of such a piece, such as (the last stanza only in French):

“Oreillons,” a déclaré le médecin.
“La rougeole,” dit l’infirmière.
“Rien,” dit la femme
Avec le sac à main en alligator.

would completely destroy its purpose; any true translation would have to leave the semantic completely behind. Instead, it would need to capture the specific, even unique, kind of playfulness and, above all, the specific and unique non-sense of the original. We’re so used to translating for sense that we may have unwittingly blocked our ability to translate nonsense. This particular rhyme has many variations and can be traced back to the mid-19th century. Many of those versions have adult social and political undertones. These are the versions that we’ve received because they’ve been transcribed by adults and published in studies of folklore and the like, but these are not the real versions; the rhymes that fuel actual children’s games are constantly modified—adapted to tease a particular child or simply in response to a given child’s sense of sound and sound play. These versions never get recorded because they pass among children, flying under the adult radar and certainly never entering the world of print.

So, in short, actual children’s rhymes are another category that’s not translated because they don’t need to be; their entire functionality is in a present and evaporating moment. The point of such language—as JL Austin would say—is in its performativity; it’s language that does rather than says. And it’s performative language of an odd sort, in that the force, and point, of most performative language is its permanence, it creates a lasting change. For instance, in the marriage ceremony, the words “I do” don’t state something, but constitute an act with important real-life consequences; whereas, with children’s games, we have the opposite—it’s a performance whose whole point is its disappearance. The game is over, and there is no remainder. Its perfection is in that completely tidy equation.

There are also adult categories of language use in which sound is sense, uses whose meanings are largely non-semantic, such as all sorts of chants and spells, from the religious to the witches’—think of the witches’ recipe in Macbeth:

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing… 

The ingredients of this enlivening mixture were clearly chosen for their sound rather than for their taste, texture, or nutritional qualities—it’s the rhythm, alliteration, and rhyme that make the spell effective, and not the particular things that go into the pot. If you translated it into any other language, the spell simply would not work. 

Such chants and spells may seem related to child-rhymes in their nonsense and sound-play, but they are importantly different in that they are intended to do something in the world with a permanent effect, be it pleasing heaven or unnaturally affecting others’ behaviors or prospects, and as such, they are excellent examples of Austin’s performative language. 

Perhaps it’s worth detouring just a moment to reflect that children have a very different sense of permanence than adults do. A child’s sense of time doesn’t need to include permanence because it so fully assumes it, whereas an adult, who has learned that permanence is an illusion, uses such performative language to try to exceed the moment of utterance in order to turn the fact that permanence is an illusion into its opposite—the illusion of permanence. 

In contrast to the above examples in which language does rather than says, there is language whose saying is a kind of undoing—even an undoing of the language itself:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

That work has, in a sense, reached a pinnacle of untranslatability, and it’s done so by using unprecedented or private language, language completely out of the reach of communal agreement. This untranslatability recalls (and somewhat refutes) Wittgenstein’s assertion that there can be no such thing as a private language. All of these examples are also great reminders of his conviction that the meaning of a word is the way in which it’s used.

But there are also instances of completely accessible referential language that nonetheless includes important untranslatabilities, such as alterations within a given language. This passage is from Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree

“Is that thee, young Dick Dewey?” came from the darkness.
“Ay, sure, Michael Mail!”
“Then why not stop for fellow-craters—going to thy own father’s house, as we be, and knowen us so well?” 

Though the semantic content is foregrounded here, the elements of dialect contain crucial information about class, community, and location—information about the speakers’ upbringings and experiences and all the things that went to color their world and set their expectations and attitudes.  Subtler language variations, such as accents, say a lot too—a 60 year old white man with a South African accent in English and a 60 year old Indian woman with an Indian accent grew up in different worlds, and many of the words they share will nonetheless not mean quite the same things. And yet not only can these accents not be translated, they can’t be expressed in writing at all, and thus much non-semantic content is lost.

Like the children’s rhymes and games considered above, dialects, accents, spells, and chants also require translating first from speech to writing, and then from one language to another, so the act of translation creates double-remove. Each of the two stages incorporates its own specific untranslatabilities, and taken together, they become compounded.

While accents and dialects are communal phenomena, even markers of community membership, there are other variations that are individual, such as stuttering, lisping, and other particularities of speech, that also carry information that cannot be captured by translation. And precisely because they are individual, they are even more resistant to presentation in writing than dialects, many of which, like Hardy’s above, have accrued conventional representations over time. 

Wandering further, we arrive at broken speech, such as fractured words, cut-off sentences, and utterances left in suspension. In speech, these often occur because the speaker assumes that the listener knows what’s coming, while in writing, it’s often the opposite; fragmentary language is used to heighten ambiguity, allowing multiple things to fill in a blank. All those instances require listeners and readers to hear not only what is said, but even more importantly, what is not said—and they do hear it. And the translator hears it too, but cannot translate it.

This is true of the entire category of the unsaid, which is also larger than you’d think at first thought. I remember an incident with Ed Dorn—he was doing a Q&A after a reading and said something particularly intriguing and provocative, and a student leapt in and asked him to say more about it, to explain what he meant, exactly, which he did. And when he was done, he paused a moment and then said—“See, now it’s no longer interesting.” And he was right—there had been something not wholly thinkable in his proposition, and therefore also unsayable, and the process of unpacking it and giving its precise explanation ironed the unsayable out of it—and the vibrating ghost that had had everyone on alert had been scared off. 

Such not-wholly-thinkable moments occur all the time in poetry—and could even be said to be a definition of poetry, as they’re related to the notion of poetry as language that cannot be paraphrased. And it can’t be because it always includes, among all that can be and is said, doses of the unsayable. Perceptible, intuitable, sensible, but not sayable, yet occurring in language, even dependent upon it. And untranslatable. 

It’s the zones of the untranslatable, in their many variations, that tell us the most about language itself. It’s where translation breaks down, just as it’s so often the point of breakdown in any system or thing that give us glimpses of its inner workings. But it’s also only through attempting to translate them that we can discover and further explore these zones of untranslatability. 

What do all these untranslatables have in common? One thing is a different relation to time from that of other language. Magic spells, jump-rope rhymes, religious chants—are all modes outside of time or even ones that aim to thwart time—with all of them, the notion of timeless cannot apply, for it’s not a matter of the ethereal eternal, but a defiance of time, a refusal of its imperatives. Childhood, in particular, is a constant defiance of time—we all, as children, knew for a fact that we would never be adults, and we were right—the we that we were as children is not the we that we are are now. In this way, childhood is not eternal, is not timeless, but is outside of time, has nothing to do with time (while eternity and timelessness are inexorably bound up with it.) 

Stutterings as well—they put language out of sync with itself and thereby release it from time. Stuttering is, in a way, the refusal to enter into language, the refusal of its temporal imperatives, which is true of all language practices that can’t be translated from the spoken to the written; they are fused to their moment, a singularity in the infinitive. 

Translation, on the other hand, is always a matter of conjugating or re-conjugating a piece of writing back into time. Benjamin illustrated this in his well-known essay “The Task of the Translator” with his description of translation as bringing a work out of one language into a free-wheeling space, a bit like neutral in a car’s transmission, and then re-engaging it in the new language.

Another way to think of this freedom from time is as a mode of presence. The untranslatables we’ve gone through are all instances of presence—cases in which an utterance fuses one to the immanent world, to immanence, casting the untranslatable as the holdout of a kind of immediacy that cannot be commodified, cannot be made into anything that can participate in commercial exchange of any sort, in short, cannot be made into a noun, but that remains insistently pure verb, in contrast to most utterances, which participate in systems of meaning that actually step us back from that immediate world, enacting language as a wedge between experience and experiencer. While language constructs time as separation, the untranslatable reveals and undermines that artificial separation. Which makes me question that word “artificial”—artifice—what does that constructed separation, that enforced distance accomplish? Does it have a use? My initial response is, yes, it “accomplishes” culture. It’s in the gap that language creates between living and liver, which also lets time become perceptible as such, that culture and all its products are rooted.

And it turn, what distinguishes untranslatables is that they are all lived—they are not known, thought, posited, nor remembered etc.; they are only simply and wholly lived. 

Which brings us back to JL Austin, in that that “lived” quality is closely related to the “doing” in his theory of performative language—they are all instances in which language does rather than says. And what does an untranslatable do? Among other things, it reminds us that we know in all sorts of ways other than language-based ones and gives us access to those modes of knowing and to that knowledge, modes that language often bars access to, and thus the untranslatable can shed light upon crucial aspects of our natures that are not accessible in any other way.