Thursday, January 09, 2020

Untranslatable Words

Shariatmadari's article that "untranslatable words" actually aren't is related to the fallacy that what language you grew up with dictates how you think. 
There is something deeply seductive about the idea that other languages contain codes that are impossible to crack, as I know from first-hand experience. When I was a kid, I used to sit in the hallway and listen to my dad speak Farsi on the phone to his relatives in Tehran. I had no idea what he was saying, and nor did my brother and sister. But we learned to recognize certain phrases, two in particular: tarjimmykonee and azbezutumkay. We used to repeat them, over and over. Like “abracadabra,” they seemed to be incantations. Dad was a magician. When, as an adult, I learned what these phrases actually were, I realized the extent to which we had filtered them through our English-attuned ears, distorting the sounds and syllables. And the meaning was more prosaic than I imagined, too. Tavajoh mikonee can be translated as “Are you paying attention?,” a conversational filler like “Do you see?” or “D’you know what I mean?” Arz be hozuretan ke is a polite stock phrase similar to “May I say, . . .”
I was told in freshman German that gemutlichkeit was untranslatable. It isn't. Also fremdscham, which also turns out to be fairly easy to translate.  As even words in English sometimes take a dozen words of explanation to differentiate them from near-synonyms, we should hardly be surprised when a foreign word does. Words crawl into their own little corners and set up meanings and associations in unpredictable ways, but it doesn't mean that people who speak another language cannot be quickly made to understand the idea.

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