There’s one post that almost all the Translation blogs in the world have: a long, scary list of untranslatable words in every language. I thought of writing one of those, but it’s not original at all, and I didn’t really feel like it, so I have decided to do it another way. I am going to talk about the English words some people use because it’s easier than finding a word in Catalan or Spanish meaning the same. For example, creepy.
Shall I put you in situation? My mum driving the car and Clàudia and I talking about a really creepy guy. We were speaking in Catalan, but the word we used was, of course, creepy. And all of a sudden, my mum asks ‘but what does that mean?’ Clàudia and I look at each other and try to look for an answer, and we keep saying words that mean creepy but there is none that actually fits the meaning we are giving to the word.
We thought of words like escalofriante (in Spanish), horripilant (in Catalan), etc., but you can’t say that of a person, right? If you ask me, if I ever had to say a word meaning escalofriante, I would say spooky rather than creepy. And Spanish people don’t really use escalofriante a lot; but we can find the word creepy in lots of conversations when we start talking in English. I think that is why we use it even if we talk in Catalan. There’s no better way to call someone creepy than calling them… creepy.
It’s not, in conclusion, a question of unstranslatability (did I just invent a word?); it’s a question of saying the exact word, the one that defines exactly what you want to say, and sometimes you can only find it in another language. I guess speaking lots of languages has this advantage: finding the word you’re looking for is much easier.