Foreign Concepts

One of the greatest problems for translators is translating concepts that simply do not exist in the other language or culture. Examples in Polish include kombinować or lustracja, województwo or szlachta zaściankowa. English examples include elevenses or hoody. There are different ways to attempt to translate these terms, but no translation can be regarded as truly equivalent. Of course, some may argue that no translation is ever truly equivalent, but there are equivalents that might be regarded as more (or less) faithful than other ones. We might also argue that there is a continuum of correctness that allows us to speak of a better or worse translation.

All of the words mentioned above can be translated in some way or other but that does not necessarily make them good equivalents. Kombinować might be to wheel and deal; lustracja might be lustration or vetting; województwo could be province or district; szlachta zaściankowa might be petty nobility or disenfranchised noblemen. On the other hand, elevenses might be drugie śniadanie and a hoody could be a łobuz or zbir. We might argue that all of these suggestions are poor and inadequate but we may also argue that they perform a certain function and they kind of do the job. Is this enough? Is translation always about doing enough? Should we be aiming for perfection, satisfaction, or adequacy?

Another fine example of a word which does not have an altogether elegant translation into English is the Polish koleiny. These are ruts in the road caused by poor tarmac surfaces being over-used making driving difficult and often extremely dangerous. Due to the poor quality of roads in Poland (especially in communist times) and weather extremities (hot summers, cold winters), the tarmac surfaces had/have a tendency to become soft and give under the weight of traffic. Problems in translation begin when we see road signs in Poland warning of koleiny. Could this be rendered as simply ruts? Or perhaps road ruts? Perhaps even grooves? It is only when we see this kind of road sign do we realise how difficult this could be to translate. German seems to have Spurrille as a possible equivalent. English however does not offer such contextual equivalence.

12 Responses to “Foreign Concepts”

  1. transubstantiation Says:

    Which particular part is true?

  2. Sonja Says:

    I am currently doing a course in psychology, and found that especially implict personality theories suggest that there only a handful of adjectives in all languages describe personality traits in a universal manner. Others are more culture-specific, which makes it difficult to develop universal personality tests in all languages and across cultures.

  3. transubstantiation Says:

    Sonja, if you could expand on this it would be thoroughly interesting to know which adjectives are ‘universal’ and, more importantly, which personality theories suggest this.

  4. Michael Farris Says:

    anecdote evidence coming!
    I remember a long time speaking with a fellow American (who also had learned Polish as an adult).
    We agreed that it was hard to describe the personalities of individual Polish people in English (and the personalities of Americans in Polish).
    For the Polish people the independent variable was the language that we usually spoke with them, that is it was easier to describe a Polish person in English if we usually interacted with them in English than if we interacted with them in Polish.

  5. transubstantiation Says:

    Fascinating stuff. Some work needs to be done in this field, and how communication is different because of it. Very interesting…

  6. Colin Brayton Says:

    What drive me crazy are what I tend to think of as “institutional nonequivalence.”

    In Brazil, for example — whose legal system has Napoleonic and Roan elements — a police delegado is often some sort of commander, but the term does not actually denote a specific rank or function. It just means you have a college degree and passed the delegado test, making you eligible for posts that only delegados can occupy.

    It is sort of like the general line differentiating a military officer from “enlisted personnel,” which in Brazilian police forces are agentes (or, in the case of the policia militar, praças.)
    And the delegado also has legal rights and duties that go beyond what, say, an American “precinct captain” might have, such as limited prosecutorial powers.

    I have been translating PT-Br for years now and have never really developed a satisfying solution.

    Anyway, cheers from a fellow transblogger and consider yourself bookmarked.

  7. Colin Brayton Says:

    I meant “Roman elements” …

  8. transubstantiation Says:

    Wonderful expression – “institutional non-equivalence”. Thank you!

  9. The GITS Blog » Is it really un-translatable? Says:

    […] can’t be translated into another language seems to be on translators’ minds a lot. It’s also a common theme over at the transubstantiation […]

  10. una Says:

    maybe a bit off topic but perhaps “pot holes” as in “depression or hollow in road surface caused by wear or subsidence” may do the trick…

  11. transubstantiation Says:

    It may well ‘do the trick’ but it is a little long.


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