Dictionary of Untranslatables is a word-lovers dream: over a thousand pages of lexical discoveries and mysteries, histories and evolutions. Edited by Barbara Cassin, Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood, the book has nearly 400 terms that elude easy definition. Wood picks 13 of his favorite notoriously untranslatable words from the book.
Translation, it is often said, is impossible. The only way to know what a language means is to know the language. Translation, it is almost equally often said, is everywhere, indispensable, a matter of daily use. If it was impossible people wouldn’t be doing it all the time, however badly. And of course between these extremes of impossibility and banality, we find hard-working and often under-appreciated people just getting on with the job, trying to mediate between nations or to make the Bible or Harry Potter available in more than one tongue.
The Dictionary of Untranslatables takes the practice of translation as an invitation to understand ourselves and our cultures better. Barbara Cassin, the inventor and editor of the French book on which this English edition is based, and the continuing lively mind behind the whole enterprise, offers a compelling definition of what an untranslatable word or phrase is. It is not what we can’t or don’t translate but what we can’t stop trying and failing to translate. To be precise, we don’t always fail, sometimes we succeed rather well. But we feel we could do better and that’s why we keep trying.
How does one translate a book about untranslatable terms? With fear and trembling, and a dose of hope. In what follows I evoke the arguments and implications of a few words in the Dictionary.
Animal. English and the Romance languages have the same word here, although German has ‘Tier’, which feels closer to ‘beast’. Do we know the difference between an animal and a beast? Are animals, as many cultures assume, creatures ‘that lack reason but are mobile’? That keeps plants out, but they are living (‘animal’ is close to ‘animate’), and do we believe that dogs and cats lack reason entirely? The entry in the Dictionary explores a whole range of possibilities of life from beneath the beast to beyond the human. Such a simple word.
Berit. In English God made a covenant with Abraham; in French an alliance; and in German a bond. The Dictionary tells us that the Hebrew is closest to bond, but also, paradoxically, has the meaning of ‘cutting’. One binds by severing, a complicated operation that has several possible meanings. The entry suggests that the cutting refers to the sacrifice involved in the establishment of the covenant, which makes us thinks the English ‘covenant’ is perhaps too comfortable; doesn’t allow for any deep cost.
Desengaño. An old Spanish word much used in and about Baroque literature and painting. It stems from the verb ‘desengañar’, to undeceive, and so means disenchantment, an awakening from illusion. This is a welcome condition in its first sense, but it can also mean disappointment, a hard lesson learned at the expense of one’s hope or even one’s will to live. A third meaning suggests a form of cynicism, a state of mind in which one fails to believe in what one is doing. The entry describes a beautiful, complex use in Don Quixote, where ‘desengaño’, ‘rather than taking the form of bitterness or escape, becomes a pure complicity with the adventure of living’.
Dor. This is a Romanian word etymologically related to the French ‘douleur’ and ‘deuil’, pain or sorrow and mourning. It has to do with the longing for absent things or places or people, and is close in tone to the German ‘Sehnsucht’. But it isn’t simply longing, and an element of pleasure inhabits the pain. The feeling is elusive but it is not vague or passive, and it is always ‘directed at an object’, as the entry says. We know the feeling exactly; and we wonder why we haven’t got a word for it in other languages.
Droit. It's the standard French word for ‘right’ in the sense of Bill of Rights. It is related to the English word ‘direct’, and we see at once how questions can arise. Are rights always straightforward? And what do we make of the constellation of terms surrounding the law in different languages? A French law school is an ‘école de droit’, a school of right; and a French law court is a ‘palais de justice’, a palace of justice. Law, rights, justice: do these words signify differently in different languages? Or are their meanings the same, while the traffic among them changes from nation to nation?
Drugoj. This Russian word means the others, those who are not the self, the neighbors we are supposed to love as ourselves. The notion of loving them is more than casual in this language, since the root of the word is drug, friend or comrade--most famously transliterated into English in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, where the murderous Alex hangs out with cronies he calls his droogs.Paradoxically then in this word the other is scarcely another; or should we say that Russian others are just closer to the self than ours are?
Economy. The word, in French and English, comes from the Greek ‘oikos’, a home or domain and its management. The German ‘Wirtschaft’, with the implied host at the beginning of the word, gets at the same sort of domestic meaning by another etymology. But something strange has happened to the word in English, the Dictionary entry tells us. It has separated from politics, as it has not in French, and has even come to mean something like a country. Economists are quoted as asking ‘How can we explain that a country like Japan... has become the world’s most productive economy’, and the standard French translation of an ‘advanced market economy’ is a ‘pays développé à économie de marché’. If a country is an economy then economics is beyond politics, and the French and the English have each received, our entry says, one half of the heritage of liberalism: the liberal state on the one hand and the freebooting individual on the other.
Erleben. We live and learn, or like to say we do. If we were German we would use one word for this: ‘erfahren’. And we would have another for just living (‘leben’) and another for living through (‘erleben’). The one English word ‘experience’ is supposed to cover all this, and does a pretty good job. It’s good to remember though just how much territory it embraces: the experience that is just a sensation, or whatever happens to us: the experience that we regard as instruction, the grounds of whatever wisdom we have; and the experience that is a sort of experiment, not just an event but not yet a mode of learning either.
Evighed. This is the Danish word for eternity and has the same meanings as it does in other languages. What makes it untranslatable, or at least worth thinking of in translation, is Kierkegaard’s use of the term to cover at least three different possibilities: the felt eternity of the present moment; a future eternity that corresponds to St Paul’s concept ‘the fullness of time’; and the sheer continuity of consciousness, which eludes time. With ‘eternity’ as with so many words, we almost always mean more and less than we think we mean.
Fair. A wonderful puzzle arises with the excellent entry on the word ‘fair’. Has the French philosopher writing here entirely understood the English word? Not quite, perhaps. ‘An action’, the entry says, ‘a method, or a kind of reasoning is fair if it rejects arbitrary preferences, undue favor, or partiality and if it does not aim to win out by dishonest means or by force.’ It probably is, but it could do all that and still be unfair, because fairness is about balance and not about procedures or even honesty. It’s true that the philosopher John Rawls thinks of justice as fairness; but this is a take on justice, not a simple equation of the terms.
Ficar. This is one of the Portuguese words meaning ‘to be’. French, English and German have only one such word, Spanish has two, and Portuguese has three. ‘Ser’ and ‘estar’ exist in Spanish also, and suggest in the first case a permanent or essential mode of being (the girl is pale, that’s her natural complexion) and in the second a momentary or passing state (the girl is pale because she is ill). ‘Ficar’ is related to the English ‘fix’, and suggests a completed condition and a precise time and place: the girl is and remains pale because the wolf will not go away. Very helpful distinctions, and we may wonder how we manage without them. Do we manage without them?
French. The names of languages don’t seem to be untranslatable but of course they do have special meanings and mythologies that can be unfolded. We know what we mean when we say something or someone is ‘very French’ or ‘very English’. Or do we? French philosophers, the entry tells us, have always wanted to be French writers. This ambition is not always compatible with their work as philosophers. French is said to be a skinny language (‘maigre’), subsisting on syntax rather than nuance or connotation, and the entry’s funniest--and perhaps most challenging claim--is that French philosophy can’t help degenerating into nifty maxims. The philosophers are after nuance and ambiguity as in English, etymological texture as in German, but then they say things like ‘hell is other people’ (Sartre) and ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’ (Lacan); they want to be dark and deep but end up crisp and clean like Pascal and La Rochefoucauld.
Wisdom. The Greek and Latin terms ‘sophia’ and ‘sapientia’ combine theoretical and practical wisdom, although in the Greek a suspicion of excessive cleverness may creep in, as with sophistry. Modern languages almost all lean to the practical side, the Oxford English Dictionary succinctly offering ‘Capacity of judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct; soundness of judgement in the choice of means and ends; sometimes, less strictly, sound sense, esp. in practical affairs: opp. to folly.’ The same dictionary tells us that the sense of ‘wisdom’ suggesting theoretical knowledge is now ‘historical’. But do we really think wisdom is so practical, couldn’t it be riskier than mere prudence?
Michael Wood is the Charles Barnwell Straut Class of 1923 Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Princeton University.