Translation is not always one to one

The So Bad, So Good website has come up with its list of the best 25 non-English words with no counterpart in English: “25 Handy Words That Simply Don’t Exist In English”. This makes for an amusing read, and it would be interesting to hear what speakers of those languages feel.

Translators, of course, are well used to this difficulty. It is all too common to come across a word that has no direct equivalent or requires further elaboration to explain the implied nuances. Even worse is a word in the source text which has more than one meaning and is ambiguous in context. It may even be that the source text knowingly plays on this ambiguity – then the translation must aim to relay this ambiguity by careful choice of words or expansion and explanation.

So, in fact, this list is amusing but also highlights a common misconception about translation. That each individual word in a source text will have one (and only one) equivalent word in translation, and that all languages have exactly matching vocabularies and conceptual bases.

With that proviso, the list still makes an amusing read although the most cursory of checks of the accuracy of the list left me dubious.

I rather like the idea of “Age-otori”, looking worse after a haircut. This is a concept we have all had to manoeuvre delicately around with friends or colleagues proudly sporting a new cut. one has certainly done the rounds on the internet but there is some debate about it’s existence (or, at least, whether it’s archaic)

“Age-otori for example, a Japanese word which supposedly means ‘to look worse after a haircut’. What a great concept. I’ve been there myself. Even though I found it on a website, the Japanese speakers I consulted didn’t think it existed, and I couldn’t track it down in any dictionaries, so out it went.” The Meaning of Tingo

Age-otori (上げ劣り) does indeed exist in Japanese, but it’s far from being a common word. The 5th edition of the Kojien (the closest Japanese equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary) gives the following definition: 元服して髪あげをした時、かえって前より姿の劣って見えること。(Formally styling one’s hair for a coming-of-age ceremony, with the contrary effect of making oneself look worse than before.) The dictionary then lists a usage of the word from THE TALE OF GENJI. All in all, age-otori is a very archaic word. Comment, ibid

Also, I couldn’t help but laugh at the inclusion in the list of “Schadenfreude (German): the pleasure derived from someone else’s pain”. I would suggest the author looks up “schadenfreude” in an English dictionary. Unless of course one is going to rule out all loan words in English… in which case, we’ll need a longer list!

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