Syntax & The Un-Translatable

If you are reading this and a language enthusiast like yours truly, it is likely that you have established some sort of language-learning routine. Now, the race has truly begun. I would like to point out that after a few dozen times around the track (metaphorically speaking), you will begin to notice oddities, or so-called quirks in your target language. Similar to getting to know someone better, you come to appreciate said peculiarities: they enhance the relationship, rather than detract from it.

Many of these linguistic quirks will fall in the category of syntax–the arrangement of words and phrases; or, how language is organized–that differs from your native tongue. “Juice of orange/jugo de naranja” instead of orange juice (Spanish); “I doctor/Я доктор”, instead of “I am a doctor” (Russian); “Electric brain/电脑“, instead of “computer” (Mandarin Chinese). You may not be here yet, but when you arrive, try to be flexible in your thinking. “We” are not any more right than “they” are. This is where the beautiful flower of language begins to blossom.

In addition, there can also be more nebulous types of translations, or even completely untranslatable phrases. Regarding the former, Spanish does not have as many words as English, so one word can encompass numerous meanings and nuances; in English, we might have a more specific term. In fact, I have heard before that Swahili is, by necessity, incredibly metaphorical because it has fewer words than other languages. Spanish has many more words–rough estimates might say around 150,000. Below, see a few more thoughts on the subject:

This is still all comparing apples to oranges, though, because you can only compare the number of dictionary entries, not the actual number of words from one language to another. Consider that, “[Were you one of those people whom we could not make into a Czechoslovak?]” translates as ONE word in Turkish: Çekoslovakyalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmışsınız. Sorry, say what?! German combines multiple words together in the same way, which makes quantifying any of this nearly impossible.

With respect to untranslatable words and along the same lines, komorebi/木漏れ日 (in Japanese) means ‘sunlight that filters through the leaves of trees’; there is no English equivalent. Pisanzapra (in Malay) is the time needed to eat a banana. In case you are interested, Ella Frances Sanders has two books devoted entirely to this fascinating topic. Here is one of my favorite untranslatable words:

Interestingly enough, and while English does not have an equivalent for mångata, Turkish does:

Yakamoz is that beautiful phenomenon that happens at night when the shimmering moonlight reflects on the water. It also describes the blue, fluorescent glow created by bioluminescent plankton in the water.”


On closer examination, yakamoz would seem to encompass more than the Swedish term, extending to bioluminescence. However, to be fair, I speak neither Swedish nor Turkish, and so cannot know with absolute certainty that the Swedish does not connect or allude to a florescent glow.

Regardless, how deep the ocean of a single word! How utterly magnificent, these layers of language(s)! How incandescently happy the linguist who chances upon them! If could compose an Ode to Language, I would. Until then, be sure to delight in the language learning process, in upside down syntax, in untranslatable phrases, in an ever-expanding linguistic relationship, in devouring sheets of our metaphorical tiramisu language cake.

To read another article about translation, please click HERE.

Translation & Interpretation

Learning a language–and mastering it!–allows for countless job opportunities and possibilities when entering the workforce. An obvious career is language teacher, but there is so much more available if teaching doesn’t suit or excite you. Translation and interpretation–[and translations gone wrong]–have always fascinated me, but they are oftentimes confused and very different careers: translation is written; interpretation is spoken.

In class, I like to give a demonstration with a regular classroom teacher of what interpretation looks like. We choose a mini lesson beforehand, and then s/he stops after each sentence or phrase so that I can repeat it in Spanish (not simultaneous). I remember one year being distracted when a student sneezed and I missed the sentence I was supposed to interpret (a math lesson on long division); so I stopped and pointed out how crucial 100% focus and concentration are for this profession and that I had #failed in that moment!

This simple exercise ignites a meaningful discussion among students–and there tend to be a lot of questions afterwards. The regular classroom teacher and I even memorized a page-long goat story to retell for second graders one year (video), which included small gestures, is a lesson on compromise, and was great fun! Students all wanted to learn it after we performed and interpreted it!

LANGUAGE GAMES: LingYourLanguage and Language Squad

Image #2, Image #3, Image #4

Accents & Gibberish

Amy Walker – American Accents


  1. Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World, Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche
  2. Polyglot: How I Learn Languages–book in PDF, by Kató Lomb
  3. Harmony of Babel: Profiles of Famous Polyglots of Europe, Kató Lomb
  4. LINGO: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, Gaston Dorren
  5. Babel No More, Michael Erard
  6. Dreaming in Chinese, Deborah Fallows
  7. Lost in Translation, Ella Frances Sanders
  8. The Illustrated Book of Sayings, Ella Frances Sanders

Translations Gone Wrong

Recently, students have been talking about translation (written) and interpretation (spoken) in Spanish class. This week, they focused more on translation, after taking a moment to differentiate the two. You see, translation and interpretation are often confused and used interchangeably. However, they are two very different professions.

In a nutshell… translation is written. You translate documents from one language into your native tongue, and have time to write multiple drafts of a document. Interpretation, on the other hand, is spoken. You interpret on the spot, and there is no going back. Precision in the moment is key. Interpreters often work in politics, and thus must be informed about current events, slang terms and new expressions. Today, we will focus on the job of a translator and the unanticipated ramifications of poorly translated signs and documents.

It has long been said that the work of a translator (or air-traffic controller) is only noticed when something goes wrong. These mistakes can range from chuckles and rolling on the floor laughing, to confusion, expensive marketing slogan recalls, and radical global consequences. Regardless, it is clear that the bots have not quite mastered this profession; then again, neither have humans. Just because a person speaks two languages does not necessarily mean that s/he can translate (written) or interpret (spoken) from one to another. Translation is a skill like any other, and must be honed. Unfortunately, and despite serious translation training programs and certifications, this practice is sometimes learned through trial and error.

Translation disasters occur for myriad reasons. Let’s begin with online translation. Here, an algorithm might not have sufficient information about a language: users have simply not provided enough input, due to a lack of internet access or cultural interest. For example, if you live three days away from civilization by canoe in the Amazon, the Internet is probably not in your vocabulary, nor a helpful tool against a giant beast ready to attack. When Google Translate attempts to translate this giant beast’s name into English, challenges arise. Moreover, what happens when Google translates a phrase literally, with no knowledge of slang or understanding of figurative language? Not everything is black and white, Robots–especially language!

In some cases, there are cultural differences, where a word that is perfectly acceptable in one language is confusing or seemingly offensive in another. The “Lamb of God” was translated to “Seal pup of God” in Inuktitut (language of the Inuit in the Arctic) because this is what made sense culturally; religious zealots might regard such a translation as disrespectful sans the full context.

Other times, maybe a translator tries to take a shortcut with a cognate that is not actually a cognate, or a word that sounds similar in both languages: for example, in Spanish, famous and famoso both mean famous, but embarrassed is not embarazada [pregnant]. While embarrassment may be an unintended side effect of a misguided translation in social settings, real embarrassment sets in when it is part of a multi-million dollar marketing slogan… and serious fiscal consequences.

Or, on a more serious note, have you heard about the $71 million dollar word lawsuit? How about the “Do Nothing” campaign? See images below.

Poor translations can be anything from goofy to life-threatening (we have not even touched on interpreters on the battlefield), but in any event, hopefully we can agree that there is more to language than initially meets the eye. For a good read on this topic, check out the book: Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche… or surf the web.

Fun fact: in the aforementioned book, “Eva Aariak, Nunavut’s former languages commissioner (and later premier of Nunavut), chose the word [ikiaqqivik] as the Inuktitut translation for ‘Internet.’ It’s a traditional term that means ‘traveling through layers,’ and it refers to what a shaman does when he travels across time and space to find out about living or deceased relatives, ‘similar to how the net is used now,’ Julia adds” (32).

And what is the most difficult word to translate? Watch the video below!

Funny Translations

Translations- Closed Captioning

Last but not least, put on the “Closed Captioning” in English for this song. It will give you a sense of why we still need human translators– the robots just don’t get it!