Saturday, March 12, 2011

The "Untranslatable Word" Trope

First of all, the Korean's thoughts and prayers for everyone in Japan today. Please be safe.

In reaction to Japan's earthquake, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote a blog post about Japan's national character that will assist the recovery from this disaster. The Korean generally agreed with the overall point made by Kristof, but he found this passage a bit annoying:
But the Japanese people themselves were truly noble in their perseverance and stoicism and orderliness. There’s a common Japanese word, “gaman,” that doesn’t really have an English equivalent, but is something like “toughing it out.” And that’s what the people of Kobe did, with a courage, unity and common purpose that left me awed.
Sympathy for Japan, and Admiration [New York Times]

What annoyed the Korean was the "untranslatable word" trope -- about how "gaman" doesn't really have an English equivalent.  Um, actually there is an English equivalent of "gaman" -- any Japanese-English dictionary can tell you the equivalent. "Gaman" means "patience" or "perseverance." And hey, "perseverance" sounds awfully like "toughing it out."

Of course, there are cases in which word-to-word translation is not possible. For example, a word like 온돌 -- Korea's floor heating system -- does not have a single equivalent word in English. Also, there are cases in which the word itself could be translated, the precise emotion evoked by a word is difficult to translate. (See this post for example -- the word "white" loses all poetic meaning when translated from Korean to English.)

But in general, there is no word that is truly untranslatable. Instead, the "there is no equivalent word in English" is a crutch, overused whenever writers need a cheap and facile way of describing another culture. Through this trope, the writer tries to give off this impression: "Oh, those mysterious Japanese people! (In Kristof's case.) They have this concept that we cannot truly understand. All we could do is to guess at it, as if trying to divine if there will be rain by looking at the clouds."

The Korean likes Kristof's reporting a lot, but this is just lazy writing. What is wrong with simply saying that the Japanese people have perseverance? By setting up the story with the "untranslatable word" crutch, Kristof put Japanese people beyond the understanding of ordinary American people, only reachable through Kristof's own description of the Japanese people. This is not a good way of trying to bridge the gap between cultures.

Kristof's point is that there is much to admire about Japanese people's persevering spirit. The Korean agrees. But by setting up the Japanese perseverance as something alien to us, Kristof abdicates his stated goal. When the Japanese are portrayed as these inscrutable beings whose mindset we cannot completely understand, there is no point in admiring the mindset because we can never have that mindset anyway.

And it is not as if Americans have not had disasters which they overcame by way of their perseverance. Kristof could have chosen any number of challenges that faced America -- the Great Depression, Civil Rights Movement, World War II, September 11 -- and reminded Americans of their own strength and at the same time identify themselves with the Japanese also. But instead of fostering connection, the "untranslatable word" trope fosters separation.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

30 comments:

  1. Agreed. Many words are hard to translate (when a student wants to write 떡볶이 in a sentence, what do you do?), but I think untranslatable smacks of arrogance or mysticism, almost always unjustified.

    I just bought a biography of the US ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens ("내 이름은 심은경입니다"), on the back of which is a crowd-pleasing quote from the book:

    "한국에는 다른 언어로는 표현할 수 없는 단언가 있습니다. 그것은 바로 한국인의 영혼이 담긴 '정'입니다."

    However, despite the insurmountable odds, Naver has stepped up to take on the challenge.

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  2. i am 100% with you on this... it's a huge failure of any writer or speaker to not be able to articulate an idea. yes, no single word works, but rarely in english is there only one word that would explain an emotional state... how many one word poems are there?

    i love that cultures have single words devoted to a single concept/idea/state of mind.

    thanks for calling this out!

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  3. "Untranslatable words" may not exist, but precise mappings between English and Japanese words can be elusive.

    "Gaman" indicates greater effort and endurance than "persevere" does. I've seen it translated as "guts". A Japanese lady implied to me that it meant "bearing the unbearable", and she was a past master at doing just that. I urge my students to persevere in understanding math; Winston Churchill called for "gaman" when rallying the British to fight Hitler.

    Nicholas Kristof, as a widely-published newspaper writer, is ideally placed to sponsor gaman's introduction into the English language. If the word "gaman" gets used to describe great efforts outside of Japan, then it will get included in Oxford or Merriam-Webster and become an English word.

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  4. Just randomly wanted to note that I just had a conversation with my parents about explaining 아까워. It's perfectly possible to say it's somewhat "valuable in a way that you don't want to just throw it away" and it's "wasteful" but not so negative. "Valuable" and "wasteful" can sound almost like opposites in English! We all agreed it was difficult to adequately translate it into English in a single word or phrase. Growing up bilingual, I've found more difficulties finding a perfect English translation from Korean words than the other way around. That's just my own experience and opinion, without trying to pull any mysteriousness into it. ;)

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  5. Stoicism?

    Hell even the old (envisage it in a 1940s English accent)

    Stiff upper lip old boy

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  6. I've never found gaman to be untranslatable.

    Ondol actually does have a word in English... it's called "radiant heating" Maybe I am missing the point of your post however.

    On the other hand, there are several words that I actually do believe are untranslatable...

    Pyeollo (bimyou in Japanese) is hard to translate. The best I've ever been able to come up with includes "fulfilling only the minimum" "not quite good enough" "just okay, but not really" "nearly bad" "sucks" and the like, but none of that really communicates what it is.

    But I see your point.

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  7. Yes, the article is okay, but does create the impression that the Japanese are some mystical people different than the rest of the world. I think most countries that are composed of the same ethnicities would respond to similar events in a similar fashion simply b/c of the bond of history and same culture which ties them together.

    The US may one day do this too - but after maybe a few thousand years of common history.

    I didn't like how the writer uses "stoicism" either. I think it gives the impression that the Japanese don't care, or they don't show enough emotion like some Hemingway character. More appropriately would be to explain that the Japanese probably have a better understanding of how they are a small part of the entire universe, an idea that has foundations in Shinto-ism I believe.

    "Indeed, it might be better if Japanese complained a bit more – perhaps then their politicians would be more responsive." WTF is that? "complained" is not the best word to use here either. And I highly doubt that the Japanese would become better if they started resembling some whining American that plays the victim in everything.

    Actually the more I think about this article, the less I like it. As an "accomplished" writer, he definitely should have been able to evoke the same feelings from the reader that the Japan is understanding right now. I mean, we are all humans and feel the same universal emotions.

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  8. > For example, a word like 온돌 -- Korea's floor heating system -- does not have a single equivalent word in English.

    'hypocaust' http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypocaust

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  9. I have to disagree on this one, Mr The Korean.
    As a professional translator myself, I assure you that even between English and French (which are very close languages) it's sometimes very hard to find the exact wording (I'm not even saying "word" here) of the idea or feeling conveyed by one word. Though we belong to the same "western civilization", French and English speaking people do not express their ideas and feelings the same way because we do not comprehend the world exactly the same way...
    Of course, you'll be able to convey some or most of the meaning of the word using a full sentence sometimes (and I guess it's what the journalists do many times or even us translator). But still you cannot convey the FEELINGS that word carries for the member of the native speaker.
    Here is a link to an article which explain it very well (in English)

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3830521.stm

    Sorry for my broken English. I translate from English to French not the other way around, fortunatuly!

    Have a great day,
    Emmanuelle

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  10. I disagree. You're reading too much into it, dude. Chillax.

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  11. Yes, that is majorly annoying. There may not be an exact match the way there is for a word like "cat" or "tree" or "airplane", but I've yet to encounter any word or concept that can't be parsed from language to another.

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  12. There might not be "untranslatable" words, but there are definitely words that have no English equivalent and would be very difficult to translate or explain. For instance, words like 한 or 애교 come to mind. Of course, you may translate 한 as "deep grief" and 애교 as "winsome," but wouldn't you agree that they still fail to capture the full essence of these words? Sometimes even "simple" words like 멋있다 seems wrong when translated as merely "handsome" or "stylish."

    That said, I agree with you that trying to simply explain this away as due to any essential cultural or innate difference between certain groups of people would be a grave mistake.

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  13. Ultimately, it's not about whether there are words that are completely untranslatable (not true) or words that are pretty difficult to translate (very true). The Korean's point is about "untranslatable words" as a rhetorical/literary device is unhelpful.

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  14. Nope. I get it. It's the difference between saying that "noonchi" and "jeong" have a special meaning in Korean culture, and saying that foreigners don't have "noonchi" or "jeong". The jeong line is especially hurtful, as a foreigner living and working with Koreans. I think I have good jeong. It may have taken me a while to understand how jeong works in Korean culture, or to understand the importance. But that doesn't mean that I can't, or that I haven't had that experience before.

    The point is, these are not racial traits that people are born with. In the end, the feeling is the same as saying that Asians are more diligent, such hard workers! It sounds like a compliment, but it's just a different brand of racism. These things are developed by and inherent in different cultures -- that's true. But culture is adaptable, and people are adaptable to culture.

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  15. tK is right, there are no "untranslatable" words. Some languages just have a single word that encapsulates a concept or idea that has no DIRECT equivalent in another language, but that doesn't mean you can't translate it. These are words that obviously have more emphasis and is more commonly understood in that culture, so they have been given a single word to embody it.

    "Han" is a perfectly good example in Korean. Even though it could be loosely translated as "a profound sadness", it is a state of being that is part of the culture that does not have an equivalent in English. Culturally an American would never say "I no longer think about my 'profound sadness'", but Koreans would say "I no longer think about my Han". Again, not an untranslateable word, but requires A LOT of explanation.

    Wikipedia explanation of Han

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  16. "Ultimately, it's not about whether there are words that are completely untranslatable (not true) or words that are pretty difficult to translate (very true). The Korean's point is about "untranslatable words" as a rhetorical/literary device is unhelpful. "

    Exactly, and your choice of a title was perfect.

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  17. Is the word "tsunami" directly translatable? It has little to do with the tides, so the term "tidal wave" is not accurate.

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  18. @tailorkain
    Tsunami at this point has become such a useful way of describing something that is completely overwhelming that it has been co-opted as an English word in itself and doesn't need translation from Japanese. The idea of it embodying way more than just a large ocean wave anymore, we use the term all the time for something that overtakes our normal level of preparation. "Tsunami" of internet traffic, "tsunami" of customers, etc.. It is actually probably a good example of a word that many years ago in English had no direct translation but became used often enough it got absorbed into the language.

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  19. Tsunami is a loan word that means exactly the same thing. It therefore needs no translation. "Tidal wave" was given that name not because its causes have anything to do with the tides, but because when it happens, it seems like the tide is coming in all at once instead of gradually. The proper English term is "seismic sea wave" or "hydroseismic wave", but because those are exceptionally long or hard to remember, "tsunami" has taken foot.

    Futon, another loan word however, has taken a slightly different meaning (American futons are way different from Japanese futon.

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  20. "Tsunami is a loan word that means exactly the same thing. It therefore needs no translation."

    But, that's just it, isn't it? If we don't have a word or an easily memorable term, then we just adopt the foreign word. Maybe the original meaning gets altered, but the word is no longer some inscrutable mystery.

    There are many words in English that had foreign origins, which is not surprising given the origins of the English language. And while we will probably never forget that "Schadenfreude" is German, there is no need to comment on how there is no equivalent word in English or go into a deep exploration of essence of the German character. Not anymore, at least.

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  21. @tailor...

    sure, but for some reason, nobody is rushing to incorporate jeong, han, or gaman into the English language

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  22. Yeah we are not rushing to put in concepts like gaman or jeong into our language because they just aren't concepts that are often used in western culture, but that doesn't mean it can't change. Schadenfreude certainly was not used much till a couple decades or so ago, but it is much more common now. That might speak something about what direction our culture is heading depending on the words we adopt. If we in the future start using gaman or han like we use schadenfreude now, we may not be doing so great as a country.. :P

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  23. "because they just aren't concepts that are often used in western culture"

    Really?

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  24. Eugene said...
    I've never found gaman to be untranslatable.

    Ondol actually does have a word in English... it's called "radiant heating" Maybe I am missing the point of your post however.

    On the other hand, there are several words that I actually do believe are untranslatable...

    Pyeollo (bimyou in Japanese) is hard to translate. The best I've ever been able to come up with includes "fulfilling only the minimum" "not quite good enough" "just okay, but not really" "nearly bad" "sucks" and the like, but none of that really
    "nearly bad" "sucks" and the like, but none of that really communicates what it is.

    But I see your point."

    How about: Mediocre

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  25. For 별로, the Korean found that the best translation was: "Eh" (for maximum effect, accompany with a hand gesture, open with palm down and a slight shake.)

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  26. Re "eh" with hand gesture...

    Yea, that'd work. Can't really write it though, you know what I mean? Most of the communication is in the hand gesture and the tone of voice.

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  27. Someone help me prevent many people's major disappointment following a to-go box request for their leftover noodles.

    What's that translation for 풀어져???

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  28. I'm american, but I live in Japan and never speak English, except when I call family in america, or a random tourist asks for directions.

    There are very, very few words in Japanese that can't be translated to English, and 我慢 (gaman = perseverance) is definitely not one of them.
    interestingly enough, the most common words in Japanese have no real english equivalent tho. For example, お疲れ様 (otsukaresama ~ "good job/work"). I say that like 50 times a day at work every day. ppl would think u were crazy if u did that at an american company.

    The only thing I find is the word usage changes drastically in different languages. For example, the English word train makes me think of a steam engine and the equivalent Japanese, 電車 (densha) which is 98% of my daily transportation, makes me think of cheap, crowded boxes where your body is contorted and you can't move.

    ... Although with all the rolling blackouts and earthquakes in Tokyo, now everyday I wonder if the trains will run, and if so, will I be stuck inside when the next earthquake hits.
    More than words, I think ideas are much more difficult to convey to someone who hasnt experienced them.
    I'm only 150 kilos south of the triple disaster center and I can't even comprehend the entirety of what's going on.

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