Words and Phrases Lost in Translation

Coming from the author’s confusion in relating to her German-speaking Balkan partner, the question is asked: can phrases and words that we give great weight to in our native tongue truly be translated across cultural and language barriers.

Could it really mean the same thing for him to say “I love you” in English if he spoke German? He said it did, of course it did. But I sensed that when he cursed in English it was just a sound to him, because when I curse in a foreign language it’s just a sound to me. Why should saying “I love you” be any different? […]

I don’t speak German but I’ve said “ich liebe dich” plenty of times and it never does feel like a contract the way saying “I love you” feels like a contract. […]

I once tried saying “volim te” — “I love you” in Serbo-Croatian — and he didn’t respond. I asked if I’d said it right and he said I had. Then he repeated it quietly.

That’s the one, I thought: volim te. That’s the “I love you” that works for me, the one that is honest.

It’s a touching article, and presents a thought that is now at the forefront of my mind given my impending move to a non-native English-speaking country.

Euphemisms, politeness, suggestiveness, sarcasm, irony and passive-aggressive gestures — all risk being lost in translation.

In my writing class, I teach my students about subtext. I tell them people alter their conversations depending on whom they wish to address. I tell them people rarely say what they mean, that we are constantly revising our words, that the movement from thought to word is often transformative and strange.

Subtext does not often transfer between languages.



7 responses to “Words and Phrases Lost in Translation”

  1. Paul

    Hmmm. I’m not so sure.

    English is a Germanic language, so it is very likely that “ich liebe dich” is very close to “I love you” (if anything the German is actually more sincere because it uses a more intimate version of ‘you’).

    The author points out that although she doesn’t speak any German, she’s decided that based on her partner’s reaction, the German form is less sincere? Okaay.

    If her article was about Russian, East Asian or even some Scandinavian languages then I could see what she means – they are so far removed from English that many ideas readily expressed (with subtexts) in those languages are untranslatable in English.

    Here’s one from the only East Asian language I know – Japanese:

    Bimbo Yusuri’ (written 貧乏揺すり) is the name given to when someone (almost involuntarily) keeps shaking their leg under a desk. It is not considered a particularly endearing trait, and people in Japan will tell you off for doing it.

    Here in the UK, (almost) no-one is bothered by it enough to mention it.

  2. Japanese has no way of saying, “I love you.” You can translate it pretty easily – aishteru – but people don’t say it. It sounds ‘ridiculous’ is how my wife puts it, like a ‘Hollywood movie’.

    When I lived in Czechoslovakia, I had a girlfriend who once hit me because she was so frustrated that she couldn’t make a diminutive out of my (nick)name.

    About English being a Germanic language and “ich liebe dich” therefore being close to “I love you.” – maybe. But is German closer to English than English is to, say, English thirty years ago? I doubt it, and I’m not at all sure that anybody said, “I love you” then with any regularity.

    I sat in a cinema in Germany once where the audience burst into laughter because one of the actors said, “I love you.”

    Advice for you, Lloyd. I’ve lived in different countries and the one thing I’ve always struggled to work out how to say is, “Not bothered.” Other languages just don’t seem to say it. If somebody here asks you if you want ‘tea or coffee’ and you say you’re not bothered, that’s fine. Say it in some countries and you’ll spend the rest of the afternoon apologising. In my experience, anyway.

  3. Paul

    “Japanese has no way of saying ‘I love you’”

    Whaa … ? I think you’ll find “Aishiteru” is the way of saying “I love you” and there’s a vast number of Japanese pop songs to prove it!

    In addition, Japanese has more ways of saying “not bothered” than English!!

    “Betsu ni”
    “O suki ni (shite)”
    “Docchi mo”

    Husbands don’t regularly say it to their wives because it sounds soppy, just like it does in English. And German. That’s why no-one says it – not because of any inherent loss in translation.

  4. Paul, you’ll have to have a word with my wife. She says it’s not the same and that there’s no way of expressing the idea of “I love you.” I’ve just asked again and ‘aishteru’ is okay in pop songs, but not in real life.

    In fact, if I understand correctly, it’s because it’s okay in pop songs that you can’t say it ‘in real life’. Or she can’t, at any rate.

    You’re right about the ‘not bothered’ thing in Japanese, though. I never think about phrases like that as being ‘not bothered’ but more like ‘whatever pleases you (because we are not worthy)’.

    There’s me overlaying my idea of what Japanese culture is like. (I ran the four phrases past my wife – “like ‘not bothered’ or ‘either’ or ‘whatever you like’ but more polite”.)

  5. Comedian Stewart Lee made some interesting comments about how certain jokes will not work in German. Jokes like..
    “I was sitting there, minding my own business, naked, smeared with salad dressing and lowing like an ox … and then I got off the bus.”
    .. won’t work in German as you have to reveal you’re on a bus at the beginning of the sentence.
    He goes on to say: “English language allows us to imagine that we are an inherently witty nation, when in fact we just have a vocabulary and a grammar that allow for endlessly amusing confusions of meanings.”

  6. I think there’s an inherent problem with trying to compare any language isolate with another of firm genealogy or indeed a language from one family to another.

    When languages evolve so differently and we have a word or phrase that is so embedded in two or more distinct cultures (I love you, Not bothered) we will always come across serious difficulties in translation. While they may have, in recent times, converged towards a common meaning, their roots are definitely not shared and confusion will no doubt result: a confusion that’s difficult to fully comprehend.

    Of course, German and English are very closely related but Serbo-Croatian is vastly different: it’s not a Germanic language at all but a Balto-Slavic language. This is where I image the authors concerns lie: not in the differences between German and English, but in the differences between Serbo-Croatian and English/German.

  7. Andy,

    Lee’s article on how different language constructions lead to different methods of joke-writing is interesting. I came across this just over a year ago where I also noted another article you may be interested in: Simon Pegg on how cultural differences lead to different methods of joke-writing.

    This reminds me of a Mark Twain quip in his essay The Awful German Language:

    Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.