One of my favourite things to check on the internet are the so-called “untranslatable words” (or expressions) from different languages, where you can find many different foreign sayings that don’t exist in the rest of the cultures, so they are accompanied by a description of their meaning, such as this:
It’s nice to see how different countries use words for things that they experience daily that the rest of people do not experience in such a way that you need a word for it. You’re not just learning about languages, you are learning about perspectives too.
I was always sceptical about the use of the word “untranslatable”, though. If we think of it, every word can be translated one way or another. Take the example above, the description of the word is in itself a translation of it. The technique used in that case is called neutralization (through a description) and it is normally applied when you have a concept from a source culture that do not exist in the target culture and therefore you need to explain the meaning in order to make the word understandable to the readers.
So by explaining the meaning we are translating the word into a meaningful expression. But neutralization is not the only technique possible, of course. There is no consensus about a proper taxonomy for translation techniques, which means that scholars use different names to refer to the same techniques. I would like to introduce you to the main techniques in a way that is, according to my personal experience, understandable and efficient. The classification was done taking into account the taxonomies of Marco (2003, 2004) and Martí Ferriol (2006, 2010):
Borrowing: consists in using the same word that the original text used in the target text, on purpose. This happens generally when there is no direct translation of the word in the target language and there is no place to explain or describe the word, or because it’s a universal word accepted by the majority of people. Take for instance the case of technological vocabulary such as “software”. It is also frequent in corporation language, when people overuse the business English expressions in different languages (“Vamos al meeting” – “Let’s go to the meeting”). The borrowing can be “pure” when you leave the word untouched, or “naturalized” when you apply the target language rules to change the orthography of the word (meeting – mitin/mitín).
Literal translation/calque: It’s the word-by-word translation of an expression. Often, the translation is not appropriate because they sound artificial. Example: translating the expression “like father, like son” in Spanish as “como el padre, como el hijo” (instead of its cultural equivalent “de tal palo, tal astilla” – roughly translated as “from that stick, that splinter”).
Translation equivalent: It’s basically a translation recognized by the dictionaries, such as house – casa (English – Spanish). That means that both cultures share the concept that is coined by the expression and it’s therefore understandable for both source and target cultures.
Omission: just as it sounds, the omission consists of eliminating the expression from the source text in the target text. It’s a very bold move that is generally used in cases where the elimination of the concept does not alter the meaning of the original sentence or it is not relevant for its understanding.
Compression: This is a kind of omission but of only part of the expression (for instance, when you eliminate a filler in a sentence such as “so”, “then”, “hmm”).
Transposition: This technique consists in a grammatical change (from a verb into a noun) or the use of the opposite voice (passive/active), generally to make the expression sound more natural in the target language. English, for instance, used the passive voice very often, but it’s not such a natural choice in Spanish, so transpositions are very common when translating these languages.
Neutralization: with this technique you can describe the concept from the source text as an explanation; also you can make a generalization (from some specific concept to a general one) or a particularization (the opposite). Example:
Creation: Consists in adding a word or expression that did not appear in the source text.
Amplification: With this technique we add information about a foreign concept to explain it, be it with a paraphrases or description, or with a footnote, for instance.
Modulation: We use it when we need a change in the point of view or category, for instance, when we change a formal reference into an informal one (You informal – You formal)
Intra-cultural adaptation: When we exchange a not so well-known cultural reference from a culture into a more famous reference from the same culture. An example would be to change the name of a French painter that is not so popular for a name of a famous French painter (same culture, different notoriety).
Cultural equivalent: (or inter-cultural adaptation) would consist in the substitution of a term from the source culture into a term from the target culture that is more or less equivalent. If we take the previous case as an example, the cultural equivalent technique would involve changing the name of the French painter for a Spanish painter one (in the case of French to Spanish translation).
Discursive creation: It refers to equivalents that would only work in that specific situation. We can find clear examples of this technique in the translation of movie titles. The American movie “Some Like it Hot” was translated as “Con faldas y a lo loco” in Spanish (this translation wouldn’t work in any other situation).
So this is one of the possible taxonomies of translation techniques; there are other more specific and some of them have different names depending on the scholars who classified them, but you can get the idea from this list of all the possibilities to translate a cultural concept.
It is indeed not impossible.