The untranslatable German language

by Kristin Fehlauer

“…It actually does mean laundry, but like a child’s laundry. We don’t really have a word for it.”
–Buster Bluth

I have a problem with the word “untranslatable.” People write articles and even whole books devoted to lists of foreign words that they claim are “untranslatable.” Oftentimes they simply mean there is no one-to-one equivalent in the other language. But just because a word doesn’t exist in a given language doesn’t mean its speakers can’t understand the concept behind that word. It may simply be that the concept isn’t discussed very often in their culture.

Kristin Fehlauer

What does untranslatable even mean?

Let’s do a couple examples, because let’s face it, fun examples are the best thing about a language blog. Russian has the word razbliuto1, meaning the feeling you have for someone you once loved. As the mere mention here proves, it is certainly possible to explain this word in English, even if you need much more space and more words to do so. And anyone who has been in love will recognize the feeling described. For whatever reason, English has thus far not needed a concise way of referring to this phenomenon, whereas Russian has.

Similarly, Japanese has some wonderfully concise words to describe beautiful aesthetic concepts. One I learned about in college was yugen, which, ironically, refers to a sense of the mystery of the universe that is too profound for words. A word for a feeling beyond words! I may not be as fully conversant in all the associations and nuances of yugen as a native speaker might be, but the basics can certainly be explained in a way I can comprehend – it just takes more space and time.

What is language, really?

Ultimately, language is a shared set of labels that all parties to a conversation can use to refer in a mutually agreed-upon way to concepts and ideas that are known to everyone involved. It’s a question of efficiency; it means I don’t have to say “elevated oblong platform standing on four supports” every time I want to refer to a table, because I know that pretty much everyone will know what I mean when I say “table.” It’s only when I’m talking to someone who has no concept of what a table is – a mermaid, perhaps? – that I’ll have to resort to the longer, more descriptive statement.

Inside jokes take this efficiency to the next level. Among family and close friends, you need utter only a word or two, or sometimes even just a glance will do to communicate a host of associations, emotions, and memories. But you can take this even further. A famous episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation had the crew encountering an alien species that communicated entirely by metaphor, using references to a shared mythology. To those who did not share that mythology, the language was virtually impenetrable. But to those who did, an enormous amount of information could be transmitted in just a few syllables.


BVI, and W, at Munich

In translation, I am tasked with taking a set of labels that is intelligible in one culture context and making them intelligible in another. Inevitably, certain qualities are going to be lost, or at least they will shine forth less brightly.

I can almost imagine English speakers who don’t speak German scoffing at the idea. So what? they would think. Can’t be any great loss. German doesn’t always have the greatest reputation among English speakers. They don’t find it as lyrical or sexy as the Romance languages, and its elegant economy often gets short shrift as well.

Think of the German terms you already know: weltschmerz, zeitgeist, kindergarten. So much meaning packed into a couple of syllables. Another facet of German that might not be immediately apparent, especially not to Hollywood audiences used to hearing it from the bad guys, is how wonderfully figurative it is, how full of imagery. Kindergarten, for instance: kinder = children, garten = garden. A garden of children! However, my favorite example of this is Schwerkraft. Schwer = heavy, kraft = force, so this word is the heavy-force, or maybe the force that makes things heavy. Gravity!

According to Merriam Webster , our English word “gravity” can be traced back to the Latin word gravis. Meaning “heavy” or “serious,” it gives us the root grav. So it’s no surprise then that gravity makes things feel heavy. It’s almost an exact reflection of the German etymology, but whereas a German speaker would immediately recognize the word components meaning heavy and force, they are obscured for the average speaker of English who has no extensive knowledge of Latin. Similarly, where English has fused the Greek “tele” (distance) and the Latin “vision” (seeing) to name the thing that lets us see moving pictures of things far away, the two halves of the German word for “television” are simply the words for “far” and “seeing”: Fernsehen.

Something lost, something gained?

But I have to ask: would a German speaker immediately recognize a word broken down into its component parts? I think often what happens is that native speakers learn a word just as a label for a thing or concept, and don’t immediately grasp its history. I’ll give two examples of what I mean (more fun examples!!).

I remember once when I was still living in Rostock (2002, 2003), I saw a sign hanging over a booth at a street festival advertising the food you could get there. Because of spacing, it was hyphenated, split over two lines: Pfann- kuchen. Oh, how interesting! I thought. Pfann = pan, kuchen = cake or cakes – they call their pancakes pan…cakes… um, I guess we call them that in English too. It seems so obvious now! But there I was, in my early 20s, and it had never occurred to me that pancake was simply a self-describing compound word.

I wish I could write that off as youthful ignorance. But just a few weeks ago, I was listening to someone talk about the German word entdecken. Ent- is a kind of nullifying prefix, negating or undoing whatever comes after it. Decken means to cover something. For instance, you could decken a table by covering it with a tablecloth (related to the English verb deck, as in deck the halls). So if decken is to cover, entdecken is to uncover. How great is that?! Simply remove whatever is … covering something… as in, uncover. Or you could say discover! Dis = a nullifying prefix that negates what comes after it; cover = keeps something hidden. So entdecken = discover, but it took a breakdown of the German word before I truly saw how the English was put together.

So what’s the upshot?

Through my enthusiasm and appreciation of German’s intrinsic imagery and efficiency, my eyes have been opened to instances of those same qualities in English. Because I admire certain qualities of German, I strive to preserve them when I translate, thus automatically working to accurately convey the meaning and sense of the original and duplicating the effect it has on its reader. True, corporate communications are not known for their poetic aspects. And as I pointed out, who knows how much of this “hidden” poetry is lost on the average native speaker? But it is this love of and dedication to the more subtle, soulful facets of language that makes translation a challenge and a joy for me.

1 The Russian and Japanese examples draw from Howard Rheingold’s excellent book, They Have A Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words & Phrases (Louisville: Sarabande Books, 2000).

3 responses to “The untranslatable German language”

  1. Great post Kristin! I find this topic really fascinating as I’m quite sure all languages has untranslatable words. As a matter of fact, I love these words because they are challenging and, most of the times, poetic! Thank you for sharing!

  2. Alfonso says:

    Many thanks for this, Kristin.
    I love languages, and I can fluently speak English, Spanish, Italian and French… I want to learn German, but the bar still seems quite high to me.
    Simple explanations like yours just fuel my curiosity, and now I will look even deeper into the etymologies… I still react easily to “Not ausgang” thinking that it is not an exit !!

  3. Joelle says:

    Thanks for this insightful write-up. Though I grew up speaking a romance language, German to me is full of subtlety and poetry. Happy to read some of these examples I thought about in my study days. I love the word “entdecken” too!

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