June 23, 2004

The most untranslatable word

Perhaps the BBC hasn't had the resources to check or retract its stories on telepathic parrots and mutant frog sex because it's been busy with this:

The world's most difficult word to translate has been identified as "ilunga" from the Tshiluba language spoken in south-eastern DR Congo.

It came top of a list drawn up in consultation with 1,000 linguists.

Ilunga means "a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time"

1,000 linguists? And they didn't ask me? How will I show my face at the next meeting of the LSA cabal?

OK, in fairness to the Beeb, it wan't their survey at all. According to the story, it was carried out by "Jurga Zilinskiene, head of Today Translations". And since googling these names turns up no further information about the survey, I'll wait a bit before feeling slighted.

The thing that puzzles me, though, is where Zilinskiene turned up 1,000 linguists who know Tshiluba vocabulary. I'm beginning to get the feeling that this survey might have been a class project in one of Zilinskiene's Problematics courses...

The BBC's intrepid reporter, Oliver Conway, gives us the top three hard-to-translate words from the "survey".

In second place was shlimazl which is Yiddish for "a chronically unlucky person".

Third was Naa, used in the Kansai area of Japan to emphasise statements or agree with someone.

I'm no kind of expert on translation, but if they'd asked me, I would have been tempted to nominate some morphological category like inchoative, or some preposition or determiner. The thing about words like shlimazl is that they have pretty clear definitions, and you can always just borrow them in a pinch -- as English has done with shlimazl, which was even featured on a TV show. I'm not sure how useful ilunga will really be, but if you feel you need it, and none of the available paraphrases or approximations will do, you could just start using it.

Apparently Conway asked some similar questions:

Although the definitions seem fairly precise, the problem is trying to convey the local references associated with such words, says Jurga Zilinskiene, head of Today Translations, which carried out the survey.

"Probably you can have a look at the dictionary and... find the meaning," she said. "But most importantly it's about cultural experiences and... cultural emphasis on words."

Fair enough. But I'm still wondering about that survey. Googling Zilinskiene, I find her described by a feature in the Guardian's jobs section as having "recently won the Shell LiveWire Award for young entrepreneurs". But her company Today Translations seems to be so new that it doesn't yet have a web site indexed by Google, and likewise her LiveWire award seems to be so recent that it's not yet in the LiveWire news archive.

Conway's story makes an amusing little feature, which probably didn't take him any longer to research and write than the 20 minutes that this post took me. But if BBC News were a serious organization, you'd think his editor would have asked him to ask a few linguists or translators for some reactions. Or they could even have assigned a writer with some knowledge of the genuine problems of translation, and some interest in the methods that translators use to solve them.

[Link sent in by Peter Conn.]

[Update: Alexander Koller emails:

not to mention the problem that the notion of a "most untranslatable word" is inherently ill-defined anyway. Surely you need to fix the target language to decide what the most untranslatable word would be. I can easily translate "shlimazl" into German "Pechvogel", and that seems to express exactly the same meaning (although I don't know about the finer points of the cultural references associated with "shlimazl").

Yes, I suppose it means "hard to translate into English". But the news article carefully avoids this level of precision.

Yes. The problem is that Alexander's dashed-off email represents an order of magnitude more thought than Oliver Conway devoted to the topic. Perhaps Conway just re-wrote a press release from Today Translations, or maybe he went so far as to interview Zilinskiene on the phone.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 23, 2004 08:34 AM