I’m still thinking about the ways in which we talk about translation, and how that affects the ways in which we perceive translation. Like many translators, I have problems with the concept of untranslatability, and especially with the way it’s used in non-academic circles. I always get deeply irritated by those articles entitled something like ’10 Untranslatable Words’ where the author gives a list of words in foreign languages and then translates them into English. The English translations are always more than one word long, and it’s implied that this makes them somehow not-translations, but they are translations all the same.

Usually when people say a word is ‘untranslatable’ they either mean ‘it would be really useful if we had a word in English that meant all this instead of having to use a whole phrase’ (e.g. 懐かしい natsukashii, which is an adjective describing an experience or thing that reminds one of the past or makes one feel nostalgic), or ‘we can translate this word into some other words, but we don’t use those words in our culture in the same way as the source culture uses the source word so it’s not the same’ (e.g. やはり yahari, which translates as ‘as expected’, but is used in Japanese far more than the equivalent phrase is in English. My Routledge Course in Japanese Translation informs me that it occurs forty-one times in Abe Kobo’s 砂の女 Suna no onna/The Woman in the Dunes, and only sixteen of these are represented in the English translation). But I’m not sure if this is a particularly useful definition – if that is what we mean by untranslatability, then surely almost everything is untranslatable?

Perhaps it’s because I feel hyper-aware of the subjective nature of any translation, but I can’t help noticing that there are really very few one-to-one correlations between languages, particularly if you start thinking at cultural level rather than at word level. Take food, for example. I know very little about the use of translation in Christianity, but I wonder how the first missionaries to Japan translated phrases like ‘give us this day our daily bread’ to people who didn’t know what bread was – did they translate the word itself, bread, or the idea behind it, in this case staple food, rice?
As you might expect (yahari…) we encounter similar problems in translating from Japanese to English. I once translated the first chapter of Mure Yoko’s かもめ食堂 Kamome Shokudō (Seagull Diner), a lovely little book in which Japanese food, particularly onigiri, plays an important role. Onigiri is usually translated into English as ‘rice balls’ because that is pretty much what they are, but ‘rice balls’ brings with it none of the emotional associations of onigiri, the staple of picnics and school lunches, bought as a midnight snack at a convenience store or lovingly made by one’s mother in the morning: ‘Japanese soul food’ according to Sachie, the central character of Kamome Shokudō.

Here’s what I did with onigiri in that chapter. Sachie lives alone with her father, a martial arts teacher, and has taken on responsibility for all the cooking and housework since her mother died:

One day – the day of a school trip – Sachie got up to make her packed lunch and heard noises coming from the kitchen. She went to investigate, and found her father there. His hands, usually occupied breaking tiles or defeating his disciples in the dojo, were busy preparing onigiri.


When he heard her voice he looked round in surprise, and said: ‘Well, you’re always making them yourself, and eating them by yourself. Onigiri taste best when they’re made for you by somebody else.’

He showed her the rice balls – they were big ones made with dried salmon, kelp, and tuna flakes. There was nothing else: no pieces of Japanese omelette or fried chicken or anything to go with them.

Sachie took them along on her school trip, and ate them at lunchtime. The other children had beautifully-presented and colourful packed lunches, made for them by their mothers. The simple onigiri Sachie’s father had made were misshapen, but to Sachie they tasted delicious.

I’m not sure if it worked, but it was the best solution I could come up with, and I think it makes for a fairly good illustration of one of my core beliefs about translation: that if nothing is perfectly translatable, then everything is imperfectly translatable. The impossibility of definitive translation, the lack of any single correct answer, is one of the things that keeps me fascinated with translation, in both theory and practice.

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2 Responses to Untranslatability

  1. You’ve stirred up long ago memories of translation theory lectures now… Nida and Bible translation and the Lamb of God becoming the Seal of God in Innuit. I’ve probably got that all wrong though.

    • Lydia says:

      Yes, I was thinking of Nida when I wrote that part! I didn’t know about the Seal of God, though – I rather like that! When you think about it, it makes sense that his ideas about formal vs dynamic equivalence are based in Bible translation and missionary work – they seem to fit particularly well there, I think.

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