The Positive Side of Untranslatability and Unique Expressive Powers of Languages

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People usually think of untranslatability in negative terms, it is considered an obstacle to understanding and communication between speakers of different languages. While it is true, it has a positive side as well: it proves that benefits of learning other languages are not limited to being able to communicate in a different language and gain access to other cultures, but they also include gaining more expressive power in absolute terms and being able to express completely new thoughts and ideas or familiar ideas, but in completely new and unique ways which are impossible in your native language (or in other languages that you speak). It is also good for preservation of languages, because it helps speakers of large and established languages understand that “small” languages are also important and that if they become extinct, humanity will permanently lose some of its heritage and expressive power.

Now, I will show some examples of untranslatability  and unique features of languages that I speak, that is, Serbian, which is my native language, English and Italian.

Advantages and expressive powers of English

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One of the main advantages in English is that each word can serve as any part of speech. In most other languages words have much more fixed roles. But not in English. For example, you can water (verb) your plants, you can drink water (noun), and you can use water (adjective) wheel to power your mill or electric generator. This property, and in particular the ability of nouns to serve as adjectives,  makes English extremely flexible and suitable for coining new terms, which combined with vibrant societies of English speaking countries results in creation of countless new words for new concepts and inventions and they spread very fast, not only in English itself, but sometimes also in other languages through quick adoption. And these terms aren’t adopted just because they are created in English, but also because such creation would be very difficult in other languages, for purely linguistic reasons. The combination of noun (serving as adjective) + noun, which is extremely common in English in terms such as timetable often requires full sentences in other languages to express the same meaning, or the use of cases and/or prepositions. For example the term “distance learning” in Serbian would have 3 words, with one of them inflected in the accusative case: učenje na daljinu.

This combined with the fact that English lacks cases and has quite flexible verbal conjugation as well,  makes it extremely suitable for song lyrics. Now the following is maybe not the most literary example but it shows this flexibility: School girl sleazy with a classy kind of sassy.   Such a sentence would be very hard to translate to other languages and even if it was done, the result would sound much worse than in English and wouldn’t have nearly as much juiciness and expressiveness.

Advantages and expressive powers of Italian

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Italian, on the other hand has this ability to create complex verbs, consisting of the verb itself combined with pronouns and/or particles like “ci” and “ne”. These verbs sometimes express concepts that are uniquely Italian and quite hard to translate in other languages. One notorious example is the verb “averci”. It is notorious because even Italians themselves can’t really explain what it means, and what’s the difference between that verb and the verb “avere”. Other similar verbs include “andersene”, “fregarsene”, etc.

Fregarsene, for instance means not to care about something, but it’s expressed in a stronger way than in English, implying that not only you don’t care about something, but you also show slight contempt towards it and you wouldn’t even consider caring about it.

Also, in Italian, there are some words that have a wide spectrum of meanings, usually depending on context and intonation. The famous example is “magari”. Most often it means something like “if only” expressing a wish that’s unlikely to be fulfilled, but it can also imply determination to do something “even if” you encounter some obstacle. Finally it can be used as an interjection, meaning “of course!”

Advantages and expressive powers of Serbian

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Like in most Slavic languages, it is very easy to create new verbs in Serbian through the use of prefixes and sometimes infixes. These affixes sometimes create completely new verbs, but sometimes they modify the aspect of existing verbs. The verbal aspect is one of the hardest things for non-Slavic speakers to grasp when they start learning a Slavic language. It describes the phase of the action that’s expressed by the verb (is it just starting, ongoing, about to be finished, or completed) way in which the action is performed, the frequency of performing an action, etc. Sometimes people create new words, that are not present in dictionary, on an ad hoc basis, but these are the words that obey the logic of Serbian language, and even though they might be just invented, their meaning is clear to anyone who speaks Serbian.

Here is an example of what can be done to a verb in Serbian with the use of affixes:

hodati –  the main verb = to walk

prohodati = to learn to walk (of a baby), or to pass some time walking in a leisurely way

prehodati = to cover a distance walking, especially to pass over some obstacle (such as a river) walking

nahodati se = to satiate oneself with walking (after a long walk)

zahodati se = to lose the sense of time by becoming very engrossed in walking activity (this is a non standard term, but everyone would understand you if used properly in a sentence)

uhodati = to enter into some place walking

uhodati se = to get some initial experience in a certain field (hodati is used in metaphorical sense)

hoduckati = to walk a little, sporadically, while being engaged in some other activity

Conclusion

As you’ve seen each language has some unique features and domains in which it’s stronger and more expressive than other languages. It makes some texts untranslatable, but it also gives you a stronger incentive to learn languages, because only when you learn a new language you gain access to some forms of thinking and looking at the world that were previously unavailable to you and that can bring you a lot of pleasure and mental stimulation from reading and interacting in a new language.

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4 thoughts on “The Positive Side of Untranslatability and Unique Expressive Powers of Languages

  1. Hi, from what I read, you must speak the above 3 languages, at least, in order to analyze them. Some languages are hard to be translated into other languages when there is no such a word in that language, the translator would have to translate the meaning of that word instead of word for word translation. I had listened to someone spoke in English, let’s say in 10 words, the translator may take 25 words to translate the meaning. Since I speak Chinese – Mandarin and Cantonese, English, and little bit of Spanish. I could feel that some words are so beautiful, but through translation, lose a little bit of its beauty.

    I enjoy reading your essay. Very well written. I just came from Jason’s blog. I’m Miriam. My blog has travel, photos, poems, and writing of my life journey. Would like to invite you for a visit. I’m leaving you two links. One is a recent post about my daughter when she was a baby an the other link is my intro.

    https://theshowersofblessing.wordpress.com/2017/03/05/beautiful-tiny-baby/
    https://theshowersofblessing.wordpress.com/about-me/

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you enjoyed reading my essay. Regarding languages, yeah, Serbian is my native language, then I learned English (started learning at the age of 10) and I learned Italian in my 20s. There are countless examples of untranslatability, I just covered the basic features of these languages. Thanks for invitation to your blog!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I started learning English at 10 also. Learned little bit of Spanish at 26. Yes, there are so many fascinating features in each language, your list is just a teaser. I took one semester of Greek, but forget everything except the name of a few alphabet, such as alpha, beta, omega. I think in Greek there are 3 different words of LOVE, the different word itself represent different depth of love. English doesn’t have that, so has to add an adjective to describe when translated.
        Oh you’re welcome to visit my blog!!

        Like

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