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Two Techniques for Interpreting Untranslatable Words

techniques to translate untranslatable words

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When it comes to untranslatable words, translators have one major advantage over interpreters: time. Unlike translators, interpreters have only minutes (or less) to decide how to best convey the meaning of a word or phrase. And if it has no equivalent in the target language, it can leave them scrambling to find a way to get the message across.

Fortunately, interpreters can adapt translators’ best practices for tackling untranslatable words.

What Is an Untranslatable Word?

Before we dive into how to interpret them, we need to define them. Simply put, an untranslatable word has no word-for-word equivalent in the target language. For example, the Portuguese word saudade, which is a deep emotional longing, has no direct translation in English. Phrases such as idioms, metaphors, and jokes that are tied to a particular culture may also be untranslatable in many instances.

How to Interpret Untranslatable Words

Yet even when a word is deemed “untranslatable”, interpreters still need to find ways to orally translate them. Here are two translation techniques interpreters can easily adapt for interpreting sessions.

  1. Circumlocution. One of the simplest ways to interpret an untranslatable word is to explain what the word or phrase means in the target language. This method is useful when an exact translation may be necessary, such as during a court hearing or other type of legal interpreting session. Medical interpreters may also want to use this method, as medical interpreting errors can lead to tragic outcomes.
  2. Adaptation. If a word or phrase has a specific cultural meaning, adaptation can help interpreters convey that meaning in the target language. For example, an interpreter could orally translate the Japanese phrase tamago gata no kao to “sweetheart” in English. Literally translated, the phrase means “eggs with eyes.” But since that makes no sense in English, the word “sweetheart” can convey a similar meaning.

Other methods of written translation, such as calque, can’t be adapted as easily by interpreters. Calque involves breaking down a word or phrase into its different elements and then translating those elements one by one. This results in a very literal translation, which may require more context than an interpreter can provide in a short amount of time. However, this method does help maintain the original tone of the source language.

In rare circumstances, interpreters may need to state that they were simply unable to accurately interpret a word or phrase. This may be necessary in instances where the interpretation can impact the outcome of a situation, such as a witness’s testimony in a court case.

Have you encountered an untranslatable word or phrase during an interpretation session? How did you interpret it?

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As technological innovations emerge at a rapid pace, we’re living in an increasingly interconnected world. Breakthroughs in transportation and telecommunications have allowed us to engage with people from different corners of the world and this newfound interconnectedness has revolutionized global interactions. But as the world gets smaller, language barriers bring an additional layer of challenges to cross-cultural engagements.