Are we losing meaning in translation?

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Megan Farrimond

Megan Farrimond explores the intricacies of foreign languages in context with discovering world literature.

Translation of literature allows authors to reach new audiences from across the globe, all thanks to translators spending countless hours interpreting texts in order to connect with the reader as the original author intended. Through this, we are welcomed into whole new worlds of reading, expanding our horizons and encouraging us to accept and embrace other cultures. However, through natural human errors, meanings are often lost in translation.

Quite often words and phrases are unique to the culture that they’re taken from. Take the German word “Gemütlichkeit”, which expresses an atmosphere which you could suggest is warm or cosy. But this isn’t exactly what the Germans mean when they use this, thus rendering the word untranslatable into any other language. We’ve all come across Tumblr lists of untranslatable words such as the Portuguese word “Saudade” (meaning a sort of yearning for something beautiful that is now gone), or the ever-popular Danish “Hygge” which denotes a sense of warm atmosphere which is often hard to put into words (although many wall prints do try).

However, this untranslatable world shouldn’t act as a barrier to us, but rather as an invitation to learn another language. After reading Paris, a Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities collection which explains the beauty in the merging of languages, I also came to understand what it means to translate the untranslatable – and how this can often alter a passage’s entire meaning. Focusing on the interactions between the languages of French and English, the collection explores the ways in which our languages overlap. One writer, Chris Clarke, explains that his goal in translating a text is to share his reading of it with a new audience in order to preserve the effect the text had on him when he read it. 

Even so, maybe we can never really capture what the author truly meant, as the translator is tainted by their own interpretation of the text. As Allison Grimaldi-Donohue puts it, “translation, under Neitzsche-cum-Malabou’s plastic paradigm, itself is an act of re-creation”. However, re-creation, while giving a text new life, can often alter the meaning. For example, Greta Gerwig’s recent remake of the Louisa May-Alcott novel Little Women was given the French title Les Filles du Docteur March (the daughters of Doctor March), giving a seemingly contradictory title to Alcott’s feminist masterpiece. 

In our modern times where making money comes first, we are often taught that learning languages offers better job prospects, leaving many to feel disillusioned with worth rather than passion and thus failing to master a second language. Through these untranslatable words and phrases we are given an insight into a whole new way of interacting with each other. We often forget to see the beauty in other languages and how different the way in which we interact with each other using them can be. After all, did you know that the Japanese language has a word to express the way sunlight filters through the leaves of trees?


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