Mind The Gap


Roman orator Quintilian

Lexical gap:
   A perceived gap in the lexicon or vocabulary of a language”; ideas or “relationships that are ‘lexicalised’ or represented in the vocabulary of one language may not be in another.”

—A Dictionary of Sociolinguistics


The Roman orator Quintilian said that when communicating “one should aim not at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand.” A noble goal to be sure, but in the context of cultural communication, the limitations and indeterminacy of language are painfully apparent.

Lexical gaps can cause translation problems as one language fails to show the nuances of another, a challenge writer Qiu Xiaolong addresses in his essay “Cooking with Words.” This essay details the author’s struggle to articulate the gastronomic experiences of his redoubtable protagonist, Inspector Chen because “some essential concepts in Chinese culinary experience do not exist in the English language.”

The attempt to translate seemingly untranslatable concepts is also the topic of the recently published English edition of the Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, one of The Times Literary Supplement’s Books of the Year 2014. Published by Princeton University Press, the Dictionary of Untranslatables is a hefty 1344 pages, with roughly 400 “important philosophical, literary, and political terms and concepts that defy easy–or any–translation from one language and culture to another.” More than 150 scholars wrote entries for the dictionary, which contains terms from over a dozen languages.

Ironically, Michael Wood, professor of English at Princeton and an editor of the Dictionary of Untranslatables, takes issue with the term untranslatable. He claims there is always some way to communicate ideas from one language to another. Nevertheless, Wood acknowledges, “there is a sense, with many words, that when you’ve translated them, you just feel you haven’t done the job even when you’ve done the best job you could.” Put another way, there’s a “nagging feeling that you’re missing something interesting.” Case in point, notes scholar Tim Crane, is Heidegger’s dasein “which in ordinary German means existence, but whose precise philosophical meaning is the subject of endless debate, and so is rarely translated (except by clunky hyphenated constructions such as ‘Being-there’).”

Besides abstract philosophical terms, idioms don’t translate well either—see the TED Open Translation blog post “40 brilliant idioms that simply can’t be translated literally.” Some English words seem particularly untranslatable, and readers from across the globe responded when The Guardian newspaper’s “Semantic Enigmas” webpage raised the following question: “Which English words do not have equivalents in other languages?”

A translator from Spain replied, “In my professional life as a translator I have translated some 203 books from English into Spanish. The worst I’ve found is ‘insight.’” A Brazilian wrote, “Portuguese doesn’t have the words ‘bully’ or ‘impeach,’ while bread dough, cake mix, batter and pastry are all called ‘massa.’ There are some words in Portuguese without English equivalents too, starting with ‘Jarrete’ (the back of the knees) and ‘tez’ (face skin).” Meanwhile a reader from the Netherlands asked, “May I turn the question around? In my native language (Frisian—spoken in the north of the Netherlands) we of course have a word for pouring a liquid into a container, but in addition we have a word for ‘pouring’ a dry substance like sugar or flower into any container—this word is RUGELJE. Does English or any other language also have such a word?”

Ultimately, translation is an attempt to make another culture part of our own. As scholar and translator Ilan Stavan states, “… for me translation is a form of appropriation. To translate is to make ours another person’s words. It is also a way to legitimize a culture, to give it gravitas.” What is not translated is likewise significant. Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, associate professor of Spanish and Latin American studies, notes that Sergio Pitol, considered one of Mexico’s greatest living authors, has only recently been published in English. Why? “He doesn’t represent ‘The Mexican,’” says Prado. “In a way, he’s punished for being cosmopolitan because he’s not someone like Gabriel García Márquez or Roberto Bolaño, who represent an idealized version of Latin America for consumption by non–Latin American audiences.”

Yet part of the joy of the “untranslatable” is finding that golden word or phrase in another language that so aptly describes part of the human experience, experience that crosses culture. Take, for instance, the Inuit word iktsuarpok. One translation is “The feeling of anticipation that leads you to go outside and check if anyone is coming.” Who hasn’t repeatedly checked the door or glanced out the window hoping to see that longed for arrival of someone special? This Inuit “untranslatable,” along with 10 others were included in a blog post by illustrator Ella Frances Sanders. Her post, “11 Untranslatable Words from Other Cultures,” quickly went viral and led to a book deal. Sander’s Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World, along with the Dictionary of Untranslatables and the novels of Qiu Xiaolong, shows, that while one language may fail to show the nuances of another, the lexical gap can nevertheless be bridged.