Adam Gopnik gets it

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Adam Gopnik, "Word Magic", The New Yorker 5/26/2014:

These questions, about the hidden traps of words and phrases, are the subject of what may be the weirdest book the twenty-first century has so far produced: “Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon,” a thirteen-hundred-page volume, originally edited in French by the French philologist Barbara Cassin but now published, by Princeton University Press, in a much altered English edition, overseen by the comp-lit luminaries Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood. How weird is it? Let us count the ways. It is in part an anti-English protest, taking arms against the imperializing spread of our era’s, well, lingua franca—which has now been offered in English, so that everyone can understand it. The book’s presupposition is that there are significant, namable, untranslatable differences between tongues, so that, say, “history” in English, histoire in French, and Geschichte in German have very different boundaries that we need to grasp if we are to understand the texts in which the words occur. The editors, propelled by this belief, also believe it to be wrong. In each entry of the Dictionary, the differences are tracked, explained, and made perfectly clear in English, which rather undermines the premise that these terms are untranslatable, except in the dim sense that it sometimes takes a few words in one language to indicate a concept that is more succinctly embodied in one word in another.

The whole article is worth reading — subscribe to read it online, or buy that issue of the magazine. Gopnik also discusses John McWhorter's "The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language" (2014).

And for more of the same, you could check out our "No word for X" archive…

The title of the French version is Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles. There's some discussion in the French-language Wikipedia here.



  1. Jason Eisner said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 9:59 am

    "it sometimes takes a few words in one language to indicate a concept that is more succinctly embodied in one word in another":

    Perhaps more than a few words in some cases. A word can conjure up a whole tissue of connotations and allusions, relating to specific past experience of the word or the concept that it denotes. In section 5 of his 1997 paper "I don't believe in word senses,"Adam Kilgarriff uses the British National Corpus to give a nice overview of how "handbag" is used in British English — including several interesting uses that were unfamiliar to me as an American English speaker.

    What a word evokes may also differ from speaker to speaker. In this marvelous 1979 video, Ian McKellan touches on his personal associations with elements of a speech from Macbeth, such as the phrase "penny candle." But within a speaker community these associations will often overlap and will be deployed for deliberate effect. When Monty Python fans use the word "elderberries," they are conjuring up the memory of a particular movie scene for each other, and the encyclopedia can't quite capture that effect without including the movie scene (which in turn might not provoke the same response in readers from a different culture viewing it at a different age and in different company).

  2. Greg said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 11:00 am

    For more from Gopnik on translation, there's a New Yorker podcast discussion which includes the insights of literary translator Ann Goldstein:

  3. Bill Taylor said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 11:09 am

    Is the fact that "it sometimes takes a few words in one language to indicate a concept that is more succinctly embodied in one word in another" evidence that this concept is thought, written, and spoken about more often in the second language than in the first?

    People sometimes point to loan words as evidence of untranslatability, and therefore of some cultural difference. English doesn't have a word for "that pleasurable feeling of 'I told you so' or nyah-nyah-nyah" so we have to borrow. But of course, once we do, the German word Schadenfreude is pretty well translated by the English word schadenfreude. Goodness knows the feeling seems to be universal.

  4. Gene Callahan said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 11:26 am

    Gopnik seems to think the only phonetic difference between fragoline and fagiolini is the 'r' sound: his Italian pronunciation is worse than he thinks!

  5. Tim Williams said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 11:33 am

    Very interesting post. My mother and grandfather wrote a book called Pitfalls which was designed to help native Dutch speakers avoid problems with Dutch English translation.

    I also came across an article which dealt with untranslatble words here: I am professinally interested in earworms and subtleties of language use.

  6. D.O. said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 12:30 pm

    You are making a fundamental mistake. We are talking about philosophy, right? So normal translation works like this. You try to figure out what is the meaning of a piece of text, or a sentence, or a group of words, or even a single word in one language and try to figure out what kind of text in another language has as close meaning to the first one as possible. If you are translating high quality fiction (or worse, poetry) you might also worry about prosody, phonetics etc. But if you are trying to translate philosophy, your original text might not have any meaning at all. It might be written to arose in the reader a vague sense of something profound based on unusual combinations of words with subtle meaning shifts from sentence to sentence. For such a writing, translation is not possible, only rendition.

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 12:57 pm

    I had the same reaction as Gene Callahan when I read the first paragraph of the article. To write that the difference between two tetrasyllabic words that have only one syllable in common is "subtle" does not indicate that the writer (who later in the article identifies himself as an "Italian speaker") "gets it".

  8. Matt Anderson said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 1:06 pm

    When Gopnik writes, "The rubber meets the road—or la gomma tocca la strada, as we Italian speakers say," he is clearly joking, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't seriously think that a "single 'r' rolled" is the only difference between the two words in question (though it could just be, as Gene Callahan writes, that his Italian is much worse than he thinks!).

  9. L said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 1:54 pm

    " It is in part an anti-English protest, taking arms against the imperializing spread of our era’s, well, lingua franca—which has now been offered in English, so that everyone can understand it."


  10. Harold said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 2:13 pm

    The difference is between the hard and soft "g" not the "r" at all! I noticed that. It was a mistake in reading the menu, not pronunciation, really. Or at least reading pronunciation.

    The word for strawberry "Fragola", reminds me of how I was floored years ago at the age of 15 when I found out that in Calabrian dialect "faragola" meant "fairy story" — not strawberry. From Latin "parabola" obviously, my Northern Italian native-speaker friend surmised, when I related this information.

  11. Gene Callahan said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 2:46 pm

    Well, the 'r' is another difference, as well as the vowel sound at the end.

  12. Harold said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 4:38 pm

    I guess so.

  13. Darkwhite said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 7:58 pm

    There is a pun based on how the words for wordplay (pun) and wordgame (word themed game) are both 'ordspill' in Norwegian: Scrabble is the best word[play/game].

    Explaining the joke in English isn't hard, but a pun and an explanation are no more the same than sheet music and a live performance. A translation always warps the original signal. Gopnik is not getting it at all, except in the sense that 'untranslateable' must be taken to mean 'difficult to translate with reasonable fidelity'.

  14. the other Mark P said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 8:00 pm

    So the world is often talking past each other because of these "untranslatable" diffrences? And this is a good thing, and is used to defend multiple languages?

    Surely people across different cultures not understanding each other is a bad thing, as it leads to unnecessary strife. So the solution is that we all learn a common language, so that the confusion goes away.

    It might be written to arose in the reader a vague sense of something profound based on unusual combinations of words with subtle meaning shifts from sentence to sentence. For such a writing, translation is not possible, only rendition.

    That's one way of looking at it. The other is that a philosophical argument so wafer thin that it depends on "unusual combinations of words" is, in fact, not a philosophical argument at all. It is instead a bunch of pretty words tied up to sound profound, but actually not leading to any tangible idea that can be grasped separate from the pretty words.

    Many French philosophers are indeed, near untranslatable. But then again, they are untranslatable into standard French as well as English. Because the concepts are not concepts but literary conceits.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 8:58 pm

    Darkwhite: To judge by the review, the claim is that some words are translatable but some are not, so the authors are not talking about the idea that "the translation always warps the original signal", as you put it. Also, they're talking about words in isolation, not wordplay, which is almost always untranslatable. (Though my little play on "linguification" and "fiction" in the previous thread probably works in a lot of European languages, and things like it have probably been done in all of them.)

  16. TJL said,

    May 24, 2014 @ 3:24 am

    I honestly cannot tell if the comment by "The other Mark P" is sarcastic or not. Linguistic variety is a bad thing? A concept that is referred to with a specific term is not a concept but a "literary conceit"? I must be misunderstanding something, since it is very hard to believe a Language Log reader would suggest that everyone should basically "speak (a lexically limited varety of) English or die". Doubleplusungood.

  17. Darkwhite said,

    May 24, 2014 @ 6:23 am

    Jerry Friedman:

    Words which are otherwise translateable don't suddenly lose this quality when they appear in a pun. What's special about puns is that they are very fragile mechanisms, which makes it very evident when something is lost in translation. These perversions of meaning always happen – the only difference is that, most of the time, it's not as big of a deal.

    If you insist on non-pun examples, Japanese honorifics are famously troublesome to translate, and they tend to carry very relevant details about relationships which are impossible to understand without a crash course in Japanese social norms. There's a reason you see sometimes find footnotes in translated or modernized literature.

  18. Milan said,

    May 24, 2014 @ 8:43 am

    I think the claim of untranslatability is best understood if we consider a concept which, borrowing form Theodor. W. Adorno's epistemology, we might call the non-identical ("das Nichtidentische") of language. I

  19. Milan said,

    May 24, 2014 @ 9:20 am

    Perhaps the claim of untranslatability is best understood if we consider a concept which, borrowing form Theodor. W. Adorno's epistemology, we might call the non-identical ("das Nichtidentische") of language. It would be a quality of at least some linguistic utterings that is unattainable for cognition and the faculty of understanding, but nonetheless objective in the sense that it is potentially available for every individual through a kind of experience that could be described as analogue to the experience of art. It is important to note that this does not mean mere connotations, indeed denotation and connotation both would have identical and non-identical aspects.
    The non-identical naturally would escape every attempt to make it identical, i.e. to find an equivalent for it, as that would be an operation of the faculty of understanding. That means it could neither be defined or paraphrased nor translated.

    I myself am agnostic towards the existence of a non-identical of language, but I think that it makes the authors' claim tenable within the framework of Continental thought. From the analytical Anglo-American perspective it is probably absurd, but the underlying sentiment, which they associated with the raise of the English language, might exactly be the fear before a dominance of that way of thinking.

  20. Brett said,

    May 24, 2014 @ 12:27 pm

    @TJL: I can't speak for the other Mark P, but I suspect he was serious, since I agree with almost all of what he said. I have certain amount of sympathy for the richness of having different languages in the world, because they are so closely tied to a variety of cultures. However, if we were designing communication from the ground up, we would not naturally include multiple mutually incomprehensible tongues. The main effects of having multiple languages are as a a barrier to communication.

    Regarding the question of philosophy, I think is definitely true (almost to the point of being a tautology) that if an argument relies on something particular to the language expressing it, then it is not really an argument at all. It may not be possible to translate wordplay, but a logical argument should be expressable in any language.

  21. Paul Robinson said,

    May 24, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

    Gopnik's article is worth reading, albeit far too long. He also is blindly naive about hegemony and the power of language to shape political beliefs. Orwell was right about the politics of language and Gopnik wrong. It is both a moral and cognitive one!

    Gopnik wrote, "Orwell rightly detested double-talk, cheap euphemism, and deliberate obscurity—the language of “strategic hamlets” and “enhanced interrogation,” and all the other phrases that are used to muddy up meaning. But euphemism is a moral problem, not a cognitive one. When Dick Cheney calls torture “enhanced interrogation,” it doesn’t make us understand torture in a different way; it’s just a means for those who know they’re doing something wrong to find a phrase that doesn’t immediately acknowledge the wrongdoing."

    While I agree that Cheney & Co. knew it was torture (though they didn't realize it was both ineffective and morally wrong), they also were using the language, the phrases, and the words to hamper any legal challenges, but more than that, to shape consciousness.

    There's a reason "right to life" is used, as there is for the shift from "abortion rights" to "freedom of choice"– or the use of "strategic defense initiative" vs. "Star Wars." In those cases, unlike the torture one, the pronouncers sincerely believe in their viewpoint (save for the crass manipulation done by political elites to garner support), but are also hoping to win the battle for the minds. The same thing is happening now in the education wars "raising standards" vs. "test and punish". Of course, the current "reform" movement is more like torture!

    Gopnik should read Herman and Chomsky's Manufacture Consent!

  22. hector said,

    May 24, 2014 @ 2:30 pm

    Heaven forbid that there should be barriers to communication. Let us hope and pray that the singularity comes soon and we can all become cyborgs with built-in perfectly performing language translators so that we can perfectly understand everyone, everywhere.

    And while we're at it, telepathy modules that allow us to read each other's thoughts, so that there are no barriers to communication whatsoever.

  23. Erik said,

    May 24, 2014 @ 9:31 pm

    At one point he discusses a line from a film:

    "une armoire comme toutes les armoires"–"An armoire like all armoires." The English subtitle has him saying, "It's just a regular armoire." This is the sense of it, but there is something universalized and pseudo-systematic in the French form that is part of the flavor of French life.

    And yet "an armoire like any other armoire" would have been a perfect, and almost word-for-word, translation. Has he never heard an English speaker say "It's an x like any other x" ?

    This line seemed especially strange, in that the remark itself seemed intended to complicate the overall thesis (that languages are essentially translatable, though the fact that they need to be translated indicates that differences do exists). And yet the accuracy of an almost word-for-word translation of this line supports the overall thesis in the most crude way – the line is easily translated almost word for word with perfect meaning (as far as I, a non-French speaker, can tell).

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 24, 2014 @ 11:18 pm

    Darkwhite: "Hanging is too good for a man who makes puns; he should be drawn and quoted." I really don't see that this shows that "I quoted Fred Allen" and "He was sentenced to be drawn and quartered" are untranslatable. In any case, as I said, that's not what a Dictionary of Untranslatables is about—if it were, the dictionary would contain every word in every language.

    Likewise it's familiar that speakers of some language typically don't about things that speakers of another language know. Thus like most speakers of English, I don't understand Japanese social relationships. Similarly translators of the Bible into some languages of warm regions found that those languages had no word for snow. But that doesn't seem to be what the authors are talking about either.

    My only experience of what might be really untranslatable, as I've mentioned here before, was with a Navajo woman who said certain things that made sense in Navajo (Diné bizaad) didn't make sense in English—and indeed some Navajo beliefs that she stated in English didn't make sense to me. But I don't know whether other Navajos would agree.

  25. Darkwhite said,

    May 25, 2014 @ 5:45 am

    Jerry Friedman:

    No, the DoU isn't about puns, but Gopnik claims that the terms are only untranslatable in the sense that they require a few extra words, because DoU's English translation manages to explain the terms. The example with the pun demonstrates the gulf between explanation and translation.

    "I quoted Fred" is a fine example; the Norwegian equivalent is 'å sitere', a cognate of 'to cite (citation)'. For most purposes, "Jeg siterte Fred" is serviceable, but it carries a higher expectation of veracity; a sort of implicit 'and I promise this is accurate'.

    So before I can translate, I really ought to know if 'quote' in this context means an exact, word-by-word citation or something more along the lines of a paraphrase, and you could easily imagine texts where we cannot know the intended meaning.

    You also seem to be taking 'untranslatable' too literally; from the blurb: "terms that defy easy translation between languages and cultures". Remember that the context includes philosophical writing, a domain where you really don't want to add too much noise to the signal.

    Then again, maybe I'm taking 'translate' to literally.

  26. michael farris said,

    May 25, 2014 @ 11:47 am

    I'm pretty I sure I don't share Mark's enthusiasm (based on the excerpt available).

    Yes, people who go on about 'untranslatable' words and try to build theories on them are tiresome but he's missing a lot about what translation is actually about and how different languages express different kinds of realities (and not simple relexifications of a single reality) and how that's a good thing (imo).

  27. the other Mark P said,

    May 26, 2014 @ 1:09 am

    I think multiple languages are a good thing, and indeed have learned a couple extra ones in my time. But there is also the place for a language shared by everyone when they need to communicate. It is foolish to rail against a lingua franca on the basis that it removes specialness. That's pretty much the point one.

    Having lived in France, there are far too many French people who genuinely believe French is special. Better. Untranslatable in myriad ways. Nor are the French alone in this view of their own language. It's an idiotic, and indeed xenophobic, idea that some languages are "better" because more subtle/beautiful/expressive etc.

    A concept that is referred to with a specific term is not a concept but a "literary conceit"?

    No. A concept that cannot be explained except in terms of a specific term/set of words is a literary conceit. That was the argument made — that some concepts require a certain language and way of being said.

    I argue that if a concept cannot be translated into another language that you don't have a concept, at all. You have an emotional state raised via language. And that any language can do that (albeit the direct translation of the words into another language won't work — you would have to phrase it differently).

  28. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 10:38 am

    I would respectfully take issue with the other Mark P's apparent implicit premise that the primary function of natural language is the communication of "concepts" as opposed to, for example, using "literary conceits" in an attempt to affect the "emotional states" of other primates with whom you are interacting. Indeed, it is quite common in many natural languages to have a bunch of different possible sentences which are synonymous at the conceptual level (from a Tarskianesque perspective, they communicate the "same" proposition because they are either all true or all false for a given state of the world) but very different in register etc. and thus in sociolinguistic and pragmatic implications. Viewing the first bit of this as core but the second part as peripheral seems at a minimum a contestable view of what language is for and how in works.

  29. Vadim Nasardinov said,

    May 29, 2014 @ 10:20 am

    From the horse's mouth: « La définition provisoire que je proposerai de l’intraduisible, c’est : ce qu’on ne cesse pas de (ne pas) traduire. … Comme je l’ai dit, qualifier un mot d’intraduisible ne signifie pas qu’il ne peut être traduit. Je ne voudrais pas qu’on comprenne notre travail à partir d’une conception à la Heidegger de l’intraductibilité, fondée sur l’idée d’une incommensurabilité absolue des langues, liée à une quasi-sainteté de certaines langues. »


    Having read Gopnik's article, I looked up some publicly available interviews with Barbara Cassin. What I've read thus far suggests that the thesis Gopnik so skillfully demolishes in his New Yorker article is not one that Cassin has ever put forth.

  30. Peter said,

    June 9, 2014 @ 3:49 am

    I was pretty disappointed with Gopnik's article, which is why I came online to see if others were too. He made some staggeringly sweeting and singular statements in a review of a book on US literature the other week, and I felt that in the translation piece he just did a few little anecdotes and then dismissed a host of really complex and long-debated issues in a few smug paragraphs at the end. The line about a concept that can't be translated probably being a bad one reminded me of witless self-verifying statement games mid-century Cambridge philosophy used to specialize in – very keen to make its speculations iron law, very uninterested in the actual world which its neat concepts purport to tackle.

  31. ipse said,

    June 9, 2014 @ 11:19 pm

    I wonder if any of the LL staff has come across the research discussed in this episode of Radio Lab:

    The two main storylines are these:

    (1) Linguist Guy Deutscher tells the story of William Gladstone, who discovered that ancient Greek didn't have a word for the color blue. Gladstone's idea was taken up by someone else (can't remember the name), who discovered that no ancient language except for Egyptian had a word for blue.

    (2) They interview Jules Davidoff (professor of neuropsychology at the University of London) about his research on the Himba (a tribe in Namibia). Davidoff describes an experiment in which Himba are shown a screen with 12 colored squares. 11 are what "we" would call "green" and one is what "we" would call "blue." According to Davidoff, the Himba were unable to pick out the square with the "different" color. He attributes this to the fact that the Himba lack a word for "blue."

    Anyway, it all sounded like evidence against McWhorter's anti-Whorfian claims.

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