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Untranslatable Words

translating words on cell phones

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We all know that accuracy is one of the most important canons in the interpreter’s code of ethics – whether we are talking about medical or legal interpretation.

There are many aspects to accuracy, such as maintaining the register, style, and tone of the speaker, asking for pauses if necessary, taking efficient notes, and correcting errors if they occur. People who are not familiar with how interpreting works may also assume that in order to be accurate, interpreters have to interpret everything literally, or word for word. In many cases, it is possible to find the exact equivalent, especially when a speaker uses straightforward, non-metaphorical language. But some phrases, such as idiomatic expressions, or even individual words, are harder to interpret – and literal, word-for-word translation can lead to misinterpretation.

But just because a word or a phrase is considered to be untranslatable – that is, no equivalent can be found when it is translated into another language, it doesn’t mean it can be simply omitted – you just have to work a little harder to figure out how to translate the meaning behind such phrases. And because here at Boostlingo we love a good linguistic challenge, we put together a list of some fun untranslatable words and phrases for you to enjoy!

  • Sem’ pyatnitz na nedele (Russian) – literally translated to ‘for someone to have seven Fridays in a week”, this expression describes someone who isn’t reliable, changes their mind often or doesn’t keep their promises.
  • Chī dòufu – “To eat someone’s tofu’ (Chinese) means to flirt with someone.
  • Tsundoku” (Japanese) – buying books and letting them pile it up instead of reading them.
  • Dar calabazas a alguien (Spanish) – literally translated as ‘to give someone pumpkins’, this phrase means to reject someone or to turn them down.
  • “Peregar” (Russian) – the smell of last night’s alcohol on somebody’s breath.
  • Gluggaveður” (Icelandic) – literally translated as ‘window-weather’, this word describes the kind of weather that is nice to look at through the window but not nice to be out in.
  • Veshat’ lapshu na ushy – “to hang noodles on one’s ears” (Russian) means to tell lies to someone.
  • Abbiocco (Italian) – this word describes the sleepy feeling you get after a big meal.
  • Saru mo ki kara ochiru (Japanese) – literally translated as “Even monkeys fall from trees’, this proverb means that everyone makes mistakes.
  • Pålegg (Norwegian): Anything and everything you can put on a slice of bread to make an open-faced sandwich.

Are you interested in learning more untranslatable phrases? Check out this TED Talks blog where TED translators share some of their favorite difficult-to-translate idioms, this video where TED translators share even more untranslatable words and phrases and this list of illustrations containing untranslatable words and their meaning.

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