The Untranslatables

No, it’s not another film about a family of superheroes or a documentary following members of society who lack certain skills… The Untranslatables is a non-exhaustive list I have started, comprising words or phrases that are not easily rendered in another language. Interestingly, it is these that punctuate the days of a translation project manager with the most tears and the most laughs…

Skinny Dipper

not that kind of skinny dipperThis is an old favourite of mine, reeled out at every occasion someone asks ‘so what actually is your job?’. Our client sent us this file quite early on in our 18-month drive to bring their product range in line with the new Food Information Regulations for Europe. The panic was palpable as we opened it to discover the product title of this ‘veg snack pack’: Skinny Dipper.

Trying to explain to our French and Dutch translators how the British concept was being manipulated to raise a titter amongst health-conscious consumers was a tricky one. In a longer text, we might have resorted to ‘compensation’, the method by which such an ‘untranslatable’ may be translated literally, thus avoiding awkwardness in the final text, but then the same technique (here, punnery), or indeed a different one, may be employed elsewhere in the text.

In the end, the French read Légumes à grignoter and the Dutch snackgroenten, both demoted to the pertinently raw ‘vegetable snacks’ and left craving the multi-layered delight of the Skinny Dipper.

You and You

This one is a classic amongst students of many of Europe’s languages and also a headache-inducer when it pops up in texts for translation into English.

An example that will resonate with my fellow Francophones is the difference between tu (how you might address a family member or friend) and vous (how you might address your boss or a total stranger). Now, when either of these words is used throughout a source text, there is no issue as both can quite happily be converted into ‘you’. However, the problem arises when both are used in the same text (how can we make the distinction between them – ‘you’ v. ‘you, Sir’ perhaps?) and is greatened when attention is drawn to this deliberate usage. Consider that the familiarity between two characters in a French book you are translating is now such that one of them suggests they might tutoyer (literally ‘call each other tu’).

Groan… There is more than one way to solve this riddle but, in the above context, and to avoid highlighting the fact that the English version is not the original but rather a translation, I would have the character, formerly known as ‘Thomas’, inviting his new-found friend to call him ‘Tom’. A neat solution to what can be quite a messy topic!


I fully love this word.

Its dictionary-generated and official translation is ‘meteoropathy’ (linguistic respect if you’re already familiar with this term!). A person can be ‘wetterfühlig’ when changes in the weather affect their state of mind, something I identified with as soon as I heard this splendid little Germanism. I thought this word so perfect that I even wrote a one-pager on it during an Erasmus study stint in Tübingen a few years back.

I now cannot understand how English does not have a suitably succint way of expressing the feeling of pure joy when a warm sun shines bright compared with impending doom when thunder strikes. Doubtless the translation of this, if ever it has been attempted, fails to do the original justice…

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