The Concept of Untranslatability in Translation

In this short article, we will try to explore the notion of untranslatability in general and cultural untranslatability in particular. According to Wikipedia, “Untranslatability” in general can be defined as “a property of a text or of any utterance, in one language, for which no equivalent text or utterance can be found in another language when translated. A translator can, however, resort to a number of translation procedures to compensate for this”.

Accurate and reliable translation involves understanding cultural and linguistic elements of both languages. This understanding is critical because untranslatability can happen due to different reasons. For the sake of this concise discussion and to be more specific, we would like to focus on the cultural untranslatability. Nevertheless, it must be mentioned that there are two types of untranslatability: linguistic and cultural. As for the former one, it occurs when two languages don’t share common linguistic expression so that the same meaning is retained. The best example for that is in the case of translating greetings, metaphors and jokes. In regard to the cultural untranslatability, it just happens when languages do not share a common cultural understanding.

In fact, the problem of untranslatability arises because of the cultural differences between the people speaking the original language text and those speaking the language of the target language text, e.g. Arabic & English. This is especially conspicuous when it comes to food and religion culture, for instance. By way of illustration, let us take the famous and traditional dish with a highly exotic taste called, “Al Harees” in the UAE. It is made up of meat and wheat. It is very simple and elegant dish with very few ingredients but with longer cooking duration. This dish commonly served during Ramadan, wedding and “Eid” festivals. Thus, if the translator faces such a word in the text he/she is translating, there is no exact equivalent word for it in the target language text simply because it is strictly restricted to a certain culture of an Arab speaking people, which is the UAE. To resolve this issue, the translator is supposed to copy it in the target language text (transliteration), and then give some description for it as a footnote as we have just explained above.

Another example for the case of cultural untranslatability is religious terms. For example, take the purely religious concepts, “Wudu, “Ghusl”, and “Tayammum” in Islam, which are most often translated as “Ablution”. As a matter of fact, this is inaccurate translation simply because the cultural (religious) meaning or connotation of such words is rather different from the word “Ablution” when used in some other religions like Christianity and Judaism despite the fact that both terms might share the same concept in such two religions. However, the word “Wudu” is the ritual washing performed by Muslims before prayer. Muslims must be clean and wear good clothes before they present themselves before Allah, the Almighty. This requires some certain steps to be taken when performing “Wudu”, for which there is no enough space to talk about this in details, unfortunately.

In light of the above, we can daresay that as much as translators strive to retain the meaning and evoke the same reaction in their target readers, it is not surprising to claim that the translated word is not a 100 percent representative of the source word. In academic terms, there is no 100 percent transfer of meaning, only high equivalence is possible – retaining as much as meaning as possible. This skill is thus, delegated to the translators. Expertise and experience are two very important prerequisites of producing good pieces of translated work.

In conclusion, we have to say that without detecting and dealing with cultural untranslatability, translators may fail to convey the naturalness or even the source text true intention. Because cultural untranslatability is not applicable to all language combinations, the concept may be insignificant to translators or translation scholars who work in a language combination that involves no or only a marginal cultural difference. Depending on the local notion of correctness peculiar to the socio-cultural context; however, some translations can indeed be incompatible with the target language text. Finally, it must be observed that translating such culturally untranslatable items entails sufficient knowledge about the culture, demanding sensible approaches by translators.