Has there been an uptick lately in clickbait about “untranslatable” terms? Maybe the algorithms are just increasingly determined to lure me in. Either way, I’m not falling for it.
I suspect this focus on untranslatability leads people to believe that the challenges of translation are concentrated in a handful of terms per language, which isn’t the case at all. In fact, the grammatical impacts of simple, everyday concepts in a given language can affect its syntax, rhythms, and sounds in ways present as much of a challenge to translators as they do to language learners.
To illustrate this, let’s imagine we want to describe in Irish what we see in the photo below.
First, we’ll need some basic vocabulary.
small bees: beacha beaga
This might seem reasonably straightforward so far. As is the case in many other European languages, the adjective follows the noun, and both words are made plural, in this case by adding -a. Simple enough! So if we want to say exactly how many small bees, we’ll just state the number and follow it up with “beacha beaga,” right?
Not so fast. English speakers are accustomed to thinking of singular vs. plural as a binary concept; any quantity greater than one is plural. (“This recipe calls for one and a quarter cups of sugar.”) But many languages treat small quantities as their own separate category.
In Irish, if we’re talking about anywhere from two to six bees, we’re going to use the singular form of the noun with the plural form of the adjective. Yup! Oh, and they’re also getting lenited; that means the “b-” becomes a “bh-” (pronounced v). So no, “two small bees” aren’t “
dhá beacha beaga”; they’re “dhá bheach bheaga.”
But wait! That was for numbers two through six. What if we have seven, eight, nine, or ten bees? Well, the adjective is still plural and lenited. But the noun? It’s still singular, but instead of lenition, we’ll use eclipsis, which means the “b-” becomes “mb-” (pronounced m). So “seven small bees” are “seacht mbeach bheaga.”
At this point you might be wondering what difference this makes when it comes time to translate. Two small bees are two small bees, right? Well—translators, say it with me!—it depends on the context.
If you’re working with a factual, informative text, such as a caption for that photo of two small bees on a flower, then yes, the thought process is fairly straightforward. The goal is to state the idea of “two small bees” so that it is clear and comprehensible to readers of the target language. That might not be quite as simple as it sounds; perhaps the target language has multiple words for “bee” or the target readers are most familiar with a bee species that conjures a different image in readers’ minds than the source text intended. Even so, the options available to the translator are likely to be few in number, and the decision-making process shouldn’t be especially draining.
If you’re working with an expressive text, such as poetry, fiction, or personal essay, things might get more complicated. Let’s say we’re translating a picture book from Irish into English. The author’s choice to include “dhá bheach bheaga” in the story might have been motivated by the alliteration. Maybe that’s the whole reason why there are two of them rather than seven—because “seacht mbeach bheaga” wouldn’t be alliterative! Maybe the whole book is organized around alliterative phrases! That sounds delightful for the reader and nightmarish for the translator. If you need to translate the text so that the same illustrations can be used, it’s unlikely you can translate those phrases directly while maintaining the spirit and purpose of the book. So perhaps you’ll decide those are “baby bees” or “itty-bitty bees.”
All this for three words that will never show up on a list of “untranslatable” terms—and a similar challenge awaits on every page of that picture book.
A Humble Suggestion
In each newsletter, I’ll offer at least one recommendation for your reading, watching, or listening pleasure.
If the writers in your life are crankier than usual, that might be because November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and they’re trying to write 50,000 words in thirty days. I’m technically a NaNo rebel this year because I’m trying to use the positive peer pressure to finish the first draft of a novel already in progress rather than starting from scratch on November 1. Either way, it’s tough! NaNoWriMo is a nonprofit that works with writers of all ages; if you have K-12 teachers or students in your life, check out their programming for young writers.
The Hulu series Reboot has finished its first season, and it’s brilliant. The premise: Hulu greenlights an edgy reboot of an early 2000s network sitcom. The original cast members’ reunion is not exactly joyous, a generational conflict is playing out in the writers’ room, it’s anybody’s guess who is actually in charge of this production, and everything is hilarious. Seriously, go binge-watch the whole season right now. (Unless you’re doing NaNo, in which case you should be writing.)
Here, Look at My Cats
The world is a mess, and you might welcome a pleasant distraction. For what it’s worth, here are my cats.
That’s all for now. See you when these 50,000 words are done!
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