China ‘should celebrate its untranslatable words’

05/06/2013 | Hayley

It is time for Chinese people to start embracing their language and celebrating their untranslatable words, rather than thinking only about how to translate them. This is the opinion of Thorsten Pattberg, a research fellow at the University of Peking, who believes this is a better way of celebrating the language than simply encouraging non-Chinese speakers to learn it.

In an article for the South China Morning Post, the expert explains that while mankind has indexed past and current flora and fauna and has even made a start on mapping our visible section of the universe, it is still early days for the cataloguing of world culture.

Translating untranslatable words

Translation is one of the oldest crafts in history and is also incredibly valuable. As digital communication makes the world seem smaller, translation allows people who speak different languages to communicate with each other. Whether it’s being able to understand what an email from a customer says, or reading a book that’s become a hit in a different language, translation is invaluable.

However, Mr Pattberg defines translation as a transformation that renders something familiar to the recipient. Yet it could be said that this is at the expense of some customs and terms that have no accurate translation. The two options are either to make do with an imperfect translation or just stick with the word in the original language.

Taking the lead from capitalism, Mr Pattberg says markets should “compete for their terminologies”. This means Chinese writers should always promote the use of the correct Chinese term, rather than settling for a translation into English that could be misleading. By translating these words and giving them away, permission is given for the recipient to claim “sovereignty over the definition of thought”.

In business, groups fight over who owns the rights to products, brands and even specific terminology. However, Mr Pattberg notes: “When it comes to a token of their own cultural inventiveness, Asians tend to think first: what will Americans call this?”

Practically every world language has words that have no equivalent in English. For instance, there’s Torschlusspanik – a German word used to describe the anxiety people feel as they realise their future opportunities are getting smaller as they get older. Then there’s Shemomedjamo – a Georgian word which describes feeling full to bursting but being unable to stop eating a meal because it’s so tasty.

Untranslatable words are part of the culture

Mr Pattberg points to Japan as a good example of a culture that is becoming familiar in other parts of the world, partly because of its untranslatable words. Indeed, there are Japanese concepts and terms that are now part of everyday language in the west. Sushi, Zen and anime are all concepts people born and raised thousands of miles away are familiar with. It’s unusual a person in the west will be asked to explain what they mean if they say they are a fan of anime, or if they invite a friend or colleague out for sushi. The words describe exactly the concept they represent because there is no suitable English equivalent.

“Chinese, too, should be encouraged to go out and find the untranslatable words of Chinese origin, and, if they can, forbid themselves the way of all-too-convenient Western translations,” Mr Pattberg explains. As a global language develops made up of these untranslatable terms, he notes that Chinese speakers need to do more to promote their own terminology.

A more realistic goal than hoping westerners will study the Chinese language is to promote certain concepts and works so that they become commonplace in other vocabularies, the author explains. After all, it is something that is already done with names.

As language continues to globalise, now is the time for countries to search out their key phrases and untranslatable words and promote them, Mr Pattberg suggests. He concludes that failure to do this means that this vital Eastern influence will be missed out of future records of world history.

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