Untranslatability


Untranslatability is a property of a text, or of any utterance, in one language, for which no equivalent text or utterance can be found in another language when translated.

An Example of a Latin Text

Terms are, however, neither exclusively translatable nor exclusively untranslatable; rather, the degree of difficulty of translation depends on their nature, as well as on the translator’s knowledge of the languages in question.

Quite often, a text or utterance that is considered to be untranslatable is actually a so-called lacuna, or lexical gap. That is, there is no one-to-one equivalence between the word, expression or turn of phrase in the source language and another word, expression or turn of phrase in the target language. A translator can, however, resort to a number of translation procedures to compensate for this.

‘Never again shall there be a language like Latin, never again shall precision and beauty embrace in such unity. All our languages have too many words, take a look at all those bilingual publications, on the left the few and measured words, the sculptured sentences, on the right the full page, the traffic-jam, the queue of words, the unsightly dribble.’

Nooteboom C. 1991. Het Volgende Verhaal [The Next Story] Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers (1991) p. 13

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