Over the last two weeks, we’ve started posting some interesting expressions on our Facebook page which are difficult to translate directly, such as ‘Kolay gelsin’ (Turkish) and ’Mejor sola que mal acompañada’ (Spanish). Now we’d like to reach out and hear some more of your examples so that we can use your participation to help inspire our Facebook series. We’d also like to hear some of your ideas about how untranslatable expressions might have developed.
Some sayings are very much rooted in the culture that they originate from, while others rely on simple word plays that just don’t make sense in every other language. On the poetic end of the scale, for example, the Portuguese word ‘saudade’ captures a sense of heartfelt, bittersweet longing which is frequently, but not really satisfactorily, translated as ‘nostalgia’. Somewhat more prosaically, the French ‘comme ci, comme ça’ and the Turkish ‘şöyle böyle’ are both rough equivalents of ‘so-so’, but their literal ‘like this, like that’ translations mean nothing in English (and would ‘so-so’ translate literally into any other language and still make sense as an expression?)
Other idioms are products of the unique environment in which a language developed. The English phrase ‘Make hay while the sun shines’ (to make the most of an opportunity while conditions are favourable for you) will make instant sense to anyone familiar with English weather, but might be counterintuitive in a context where the heat makes it impossible to work. Many other sayings reflect the priorities of the culture they emerged from. For example, nature-loving Swedes have many phrases invoking the natural environment, such as ‘anar ugglor i mossen’ (‘sensing owls in the swamp’, or ‘being suspicious’). Then, there are the phrases which say something about the habits or customs of a particular culture. Turkish, for example, has many sayings around guests and visiting, such as ‘eline sağlık’, which literally means ‘health to your hand’ but is actually a compliment paid to a host after a nice meal.
And speaking of enjoying your meal, there are some sayings that abound in many but not all languages. There are countless variations on ‘bon appetit’ in other languages, but how can we convey that sentiment in English, without actually using the French ‘bon appetit’? Then there are phrases which are used in similar situations but convey slightly different meanings. For example, on sneezing, you might hear ‘Bless you’ in English, ‘Gesundheit’ (‘Health’) in German, or ‘Çok yaşa’ (‘Live long’) in Turkish (to which the answer is normally a variant on ‘May you also see this’.) Other cultures don’t say anything after a person sneezes. When someone proposes a toast, you might hear ‘L'chaim’ (‘To life’) in Hebrew, ‘Noroc’ (‘Luck’) in Moldovan, or one of the many variations on ‘health’ or ‘to health’ that exist across different languages.
It’s easy to imagine that in an age of globalisation and the internet, we’re increasingly all drawing from the same reference points when we make and use expressions. Yet the more we think about idioms, the more clear it becomes that there are as many unique expressions as there are unique languages - perhaps even more so. As translators, our task is to understand the cultural context of these expressions and render them in a way that is still meaningful in our target language, and that’s not always easy!
What kinds of idioms have you encountered in your translator life, or in your general life? Are there any ‘untranslatable expressions’ in the languages that you’re familiar with? Let us know in the comments below!