Here's an "Untranslatable" Finnish word I heard on RT today:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sisu
Interesting, Geoff. The problem with these kinds of words is that those of us who don't know the language (Finnish in this case) don't really know if it is untranslatable or not. It would seem to me that the discussion on Wikipedia captured the meaning, but I can't tell for sure since I don't know Finnish.
I don't know Finnish either, but I don't need to know Finnish to know that sisu is translatable. If it wasn't translatable, then wouldn't that mean that Finns were capable of an emotion that English speakers were not capable of? That seems unlikely.
Also, goofy, we all know your bias about untranslatable words.
If anyone can think of another reason why sisu might be untranslatable, I'd love to know what it is.
Note that in my original post "untranslatable" was in quotes.
I do think thee might be untranslatable terms for experiences beyond human perception. For instance, what would a human call a color that a bird, which can see in the ultraviolet spectrum, call what the bird sees? We can't experience it, so we have no word for it. We can, however, recognize that it exists. The bird likely calls it "breakfast."
I know, I was reacting to Kalleh's comment that you need to speak the language before you can say if something is untranslatable.
I recommend China Miéville's Embassytown for a cool look at what an alien language might be like.
I didn't say that exactly, goofy. Because I only speak English, I realize I could be wrong in my view. I wish I had the experience of being fluent in two languages. I've mentioned this here before, but it is my colleague who is fluent in English and Chinese who has told me there are words/concepts in Chinese that she just cannot translate adequately in English. Maybe it's a matter of preciseness, then.
But it is exactly what you said:
Do you mean that if you were bilingual, then you would be better able to judge if a word in any language (not just one of the languages you knew) was untranslatable?This message has been edited. Last edited by: goofy,
Maybe not untranslatable, but, if multilingual, might you not switch languages mid-sentence to better express a concept? If it weren't so, why would we bother to borrow words from other languages? I've known a few multilingual people who did this. Good if you speak the same languages; not so good otherwise.
I don't know, Goofy. But it would give me a different perspective, more like my colleague has. I suspect you are right that nothing is untranslatable. However, my colleague is quite certain some words are untranslatable, and it certainly gives me pause.
"Sisu is a Finnish word which loosely means stoic determination, grit, bravery, resilience, and hardiness and is held by Finns themselves to express their national character. It is generally considered to not have a literal translation into English."
I think when the lay folk say a word is "untranslateable", what they really mean is, it's a culturally-loaded term which needs a paragraph to translate. As a Romance Lit major, reading hundreds of words of French & Spanish daily, I remember occasionally having the sensation of entering an alternate kingdom, acquiring a fuzzy awareness of concepts not previously imagined in English.
I'm not as adept as you in Romance languages, but I've had a taste of the awareness of which you speak. In St-Ex's "The Little Prince," he uses "apprivoiser," which is translated as "tame" in English, but native francophones I've known have said it's broader than that.
Recently the Russian word, "TOCKA" (tosca) came up. Reflecting on the Russian lit I've read, I think I understand some of its implications, but doubt
I fully get it. I think that's why truly multilingual people code switch so often.
Kalleh, you said something similar earlier when you wrote:
No, we can know. Insofar as I can know anything, I can know what sisu means - if someone takes the time to explain it to me. I didn't grow up in Finland so the word doesn't evoke the same reaction and memories that it does in a Finn, but a Finn can describe those reactions and memories to me. We're all human.
If I can't know it, it's not because of translation. I have the problem a lot, when someone is trying to explain something to me and I don't get it. And we're speaking the same language!This message has been edited. Last edited by: goofy,
That's a good point. It reminds me of what I have often thought. What if the color I call blue is really the color another person sees as yellow? Yet, we both would describe that color by the same name (blue or yellow or another color) because that's how we've learned it. We'll never really know (wavelengths aside) that we each see that color differently because we all call it by the same name.
Fadiman's book about the Hmong culture delves deeply into some of the problems with translation/interpreters. The book is about a girl with epilepsy, and the physicians and nurses have a hard time understanding the family's health condition and needs. An example given was that many medical terms have no Hmong equivalents. For example, in a recently published Hmong-English medical glossary the recommended translation for "parasite" is 24 words, for "hormone" is 31 words and "X" chromosome is 46 words long. One can see the original concept getting lost in translation.
This isn't weird; compare the OED's definitions for these words:
Parasite: 19 words
An organism that lives on, in, or with an organism of another species, obtaining food, shelter, or other benefit...
Hormone: 41 words
Any of numerous organic compounds that are secreted into the body fluids of an animal, particularly the bloodstream, by a specific group of cells and regulate some specific physiological activity of other cells; (also) any synthetic compound having such an effect.
X chromosome: 45 words
A chromosome with different morphology and properties from others in the complement, now recognized as a sex chromosome occurring in both sexes of a species, man and other mammals having one in the somatic cells of the male and two in those of the female.