Untranslatables

This past week marked the appearance of the new anthology In Translation: Translators On Their Work And What It Means that Esther Allen and I co-edited. We were delighted to see Publisher’s Weekly include it on its list of the top eight books published last week. And now PW has just published a little essay that Esther wrote about things that can be said in some languages but not others, and what translators can do about it. In fact, one might say that nothing offers a greater opportunity to practice the art of translation than encountering one of these so-called “untranslatables.” Here’s what Esther has to say on the subject:

Part of the allure of learning a new language is discovering words for things you wouldn’t have known existed or thought of in the same way before. When I lived in Paris, I learned that a vinaigrette is something very different from the “salad dressing” I grew up with (and not something you’d ever buy in a bottle at the supermarket, despite the now-ubiquitous availability of a product masquerading under that name on our supermarket shelves). The perpetual fascination of attempting to translate between two languages lies in the gap that always exists, even between very closely related words. The Spanish olvido describes something we don’t quite have a word for: not an act of forgetting or moment of forgetfulness or total oblivion, but a mental compartment that sits opposite memory, just as blindness is the opposite of sight. You can’t hold or put something in your forgetting in English, but in Spanish you can tener or poner algo en olvido.

For the rest of her essay, click over to the PW website, and for a link to order the book with a 30% discount, see my initial post on the book from last week. Oh, and here’s a little live interview I did this week on the radio show The Monocle Daily, which featured the book and pitched me a quick handful of questions about all things translation; you’ll find the brief segment at the 25 minute mark.

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