untranslatables

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untranslatables

Post by Ken Greenwald » Wed Mar 23, 2005 1:39 am

In Other Words (2004) by Christopher J. Moore is a nifty little (127 pages) book, which I have just begun to read. The subject is what Moore calls UNTRANSLATABLES – words which have no comparable term in English – and examples of which I would like to pursue in this posting. When Phil White mentioned (in posting ‘tomorrow is another day’) the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, the name Whorf rang a bell, not because I know anything about him or the subject, but because I had just last night seen it mentioned in Moore’s book:
“In the 1940s, Benjamin Lee Whorf introduced the theory that language proceeds from and shapes our cultural life in ‘Language, Thought, and Reality.’ Whorf’s research into speech and culture of the Hopi Indians, whose language, like Chinese, has no concept of tenses, started a wave of enquiry into the relationship between language and culture. Academics refer to this area as ‘sociolinguistics.’ What emerges is not only the universal phenomenon that certain languages have “no word for X” – for example the Algonquin people have no single word for ‘time.’ – or that other languages have “very many words for X” – the widely held notion that the Inuit people have hundreds of word for ‘snow’ – but also, conversely, that languages, indeed whole cultures, have words, terms, and ideas that are simply untranslatable.”
I love the example that he gives in the introduction, which I will reproduce here, and the book appears to be filled with such jewels:
It is 1939 and two Finish foot soldiers are pinned down in a battle during the war between Finland and Russia.

“We’re outnumbered,” one soldier says. “They’re must be over forty of them, and only two of us.”

“Dear God, it’ll take us all day to bury them!” exclaims the other>
Moore continues:
Finnish people tell this story, along with a variety of others, to illustrate the national characteristic known as SISU. ‘Sisu,’ says Professor Kate Remlinger, linguist at Grand Valley State University [[Allendale, Michigan]], is an untranslatable word, meaning something like a dogged and proud refusal to lie down and be beaten. “The way people talk is a reflection of their worldview, their history, and their upbringing,” she says, observing that the idea of ‘sisu’ is so important to the Finns that, three generations after emigrating [[see posting ‘emigrant / immigrant’ – take heed bobinwales!]] to the United States of America, it continues to infuse local Michigan dialect and culture.
One of my favorite ‘untranslatable’ Yiddish expressions is – UNGEPOTCHKET/ONEGEPATSHKET. And not being a fluent Yiddish speaker, I am going to employ the aid of Leo Rosten’s ‘Joy of Yiddish’ to nail down some of the facts on the expression rather than just using my impressions (the following is a mixture of my thoughts and his).
___________________

UNGEPOTCHET/ONEGEPATSHKET has two senses. 1) Slapped together or assembled without plan, form, or sense; messed up. <“You call this your math notebook. It’s all ungepotchet.”> 2) Excessively and esthetically decorated; overly ornamented, especially something so ornate as to be in bad taste; baroque. <“She wore her new diamond earrings, a necklace, bracelet, two rings, and a brooch. Oy was she ungepotchet.”>

A connection between the German ‘Patsch,’ a slap, and the Yiddish ‘patsh/potch/patch, also a slap or smack, and ‘ongepatshket’ may be from the fact that overhandling sometimes spoils an article. In cooking, the less it has been handled, the lighter the pastry; hamburgers will be more tender if ‘patshed’ less.

A humorous example using the expression is the following:
Mr. Fleishman, a new art collector, bought a painting that was much admired by his friends Meyerson, a self-proclaimed expert. The painting was one large square of black, with a dot of white in the center. A year later Mr. Fleishman bought another painting by the same modernist genius: a large square with two white dots. Proudly, Fleishman hung the picture over the fireplace and telephoned his ‘maven’ friend Meyerson to come right over. Meyerson took one look at the picture and wrinkled his nose: “I don’t like it. Too ongepatshket.”
_____________________

Ken G – March 22, 2005
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untranslatables

Post by russcable » Wed Mar 23, 2005 6:46 am

"anesthetically decorated"? Her jewelry was so excessive that it put me to sleep. (I love it when a typo makes a real word.)
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Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Mar 23, 2005 7:17 am

Some jewellery is apt to make depressive diamands on one.
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untranslatables

Post by Ken Greenwald » Wed Mar 23, 2005 8:14 am

Russ and Erik, Although the typo has since been corrected, the mammary lingers on. Some women who are breast reduction candidates and who are sensitive about their condition, sometimes decorate themselves anesthetically in an effort to create a distraction, which they hope will have a depressive and soporific effect!

Ken – March 22, 2005
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Post by Edwin Ashworth » Wed Mar 23, 2005 12:30 pm

In one authority's opinion, some rings are far too dangerous for mortals to wear. Though sometimes they're found apparently just by chance - "What HAS it got ungepotchet?"
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Post by Bobinwales » Wed Mar 23, 2005 1:15 pm

If we follow this thread, we will find that some people praise jewellery above all things, finding themselves accepting a laud of the rings.
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Post by Edwin Ashworth » Wed Mar 23, 2005 1:30 pm

The powers-that-be will soon frustrate that by levying Valar Added Tax.
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Post by Bobinwales » Thu Mar 24, 2005 9:39 am

To return to the original thread, there are several untranslatables in Welsh, my favourite being “Ach-y-fe”.

It is pronounced with the accent on the “ach” (“a” as in lad, “ch” as in Bach the composer, or Scottish loch), and the “y-fe” (uh-vee) slurred.

It is a mystery to me how anyone can possibly bring up children without the use of this word/phrase. It means anything dirty in all senses of the word, from something your child is going to pick up and put in his mouth, to what your grandmother calls what people do in bed.

There are others which I will be happy to discuss if it becomes a requirement.
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Post by Edwin Ashworth » Thu Mar 24, 2005 10:56 am

"Filth" might come close, Bob?
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Post by Bobinwales » Thu Mar 24, 2005 2:19 pm

Sort of Edwin, but there is more to it than that, I think you have to hear the usage. If I wanted to say to a child, "Don't go near that thing on the floor, it is dirty", "Ach-y-fe!" more than does the job. Also if Dai came home to his wife drunk, her neighbour would mutter "Ach-y-fe" to her friend over the garden wall on the other side.

It really does have multifarious uses.
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Post by Edwin Ashworth » Thu Mar 24, 2005 3:10 pm

I wonder if a Sapir-Whorf analysis could chalk up the recent Welsh Triumph to the language advantage? Of course, successful soccer players develop their own vocabulary.
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Post by Wizard of Oz » Sun Mar 27, 2005 11:04 am

Ken it is not always trying to translate a word from one language to another that one strikes a problem .. there are also cultural differences in how the same word is used and how it would therefore translate to another language .. I am thinking of the Aussie use of the word mate .. to translate this word, in an Aussie sense, to another language would I feel require a different word with a differnt social context if it was being used in an American or British or Indian context although all would use the same English word .. another example would be the way an Aussie uses the word bastard .. this is a very complex word in its Aussie usage that can get you into a fight or create a very close mate ..

WoZ of Aus 27/03/05
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Post by Erik_Kowal » Sun Mar 27, 2005 11:25 am

.. there are also cultural differences in how the same word is used and how it would therefore translate to another language ..
WoZ, that is very profoundly true, as is the observation that to take into consideration the period of currency of the word/expression in question (and that of its translated closest equivalent) can complicate matters even further. It's the kind of detail that when overlooked, can completely destroy the atmosphere of literary translations in particular.

To draw a cinematic analogy, it would be like not cutting the cellphone-programming shots from the scene in Henry V in which Laurence Olivier is restlessly waiting for the dawn and the crucial battle his army must wage against the French.
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untranslatables

Post by Edwin Ashworth » Sun Mar 27, 2005 1:21 pm

But it's vital not to remove Buttons from "Cinderella".
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Post by Miia » Thu Jun 23, 2005 10:22 am

Finnish has at least three more untranslatables, which appear in the Oxford English Dictionary:

1. puukko: A type of knife used in Finland.

1952 Chambers's Jrnl. Jan. 37/1 He fumbled desperately for his sharp-bladed ‘puukko’, expecting to be set upon forthwith by a snarling fury. 1959 A. GLYN I can take it All ii. 36 His knife, his puukko, a large weapon with a plain handle and a double-edge blade in an embossed leather scabbard. 1964 C. GAVIN Fortress xi. 188 A red braided belt from which swung..the Finnish knife, the puuko, in its heavy leather sheath. 1964 G. LYALL Most Dangerous Game iii. 24, I caught the glint of puukot, those nasty little hook-ended Finnish knives. Ibid., The first puukko merchant dodged.

2. kantele: A form of zither used in Finland and Karelia.

1921 Glasgow Herald 24 Nov. 8 Eastern Karelia, where the kantele players still survive, [this is quite puzzling, since kantele is actually played all over Finland] is the home of the most characteristic Finnish music. 1960 G. TAYLOR Mortlake III. ix. 272 The kantele..was a large wooden box, pentagonal and tapering at one end. The five strings were stretched the length of the instrument. 1969 Listener 24 July 124/1 The best bits were musical: a lovely Lapp pentatonic chant, a zither-like instrument called a kantele, and, of course, liberal doses of Sibelius.

And finally the sauna, which is probably the most well known, and should not be confused with a steam room :)
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