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A-VoidThe untranslatability is the character of a text or a statement in a language, which can not match any text or any statement in another language. This concept is sometimes referred to by the Italian expression Traduttore, traditore (“Translating is betraying” or literally “translator, traitor”).


Words are more or less difficult to translate according to their nature and according to the experience of the translator. The multiple meanings of words is for example not the same in every language, which allows you to play on implied connotations of each effect with involuntary or not distorted sense. This effect is sought for himself in poetry but it can be also for its effects in political language.

Often when a text or statement is considered “untranslatable” rather, it is a “gap”, that is to say, the literal absence of a word, phrase or a turn of the original language in the target language.

To fill the gap, the translator may use different translation processes.

Translation methods

Among the translation processes to which a translator may use to fill gaps are:

  • The context (For only a few words in a sentence).
  • The equivalence (Used for some specific expressions).
  • Cross-driven (“Il traverse la rivière à la nagebecomes “He swims across the river”, notHe crosses the river to swim”).
  • The literal translation (The literal translation should result in a sentence that makes sense: “J‘ai laissé mon livre sur la table en basgives “I left my book on the table downstairs”).


Adaptation, which is also called “free translation” is a translation method whereby the translator replaces the social and cultural reality of the source text by a corresponding reality in the target text. This new reality will be more appropriate to the audience of the target text.

For example, in the English translation of the Belgian comic strip Les Aventures de Tintin et Milou, the canine companion of Tintin, Milou in the original story, becomes Snowy (The Adventures of Tintin and Snowy); in Dutch it is called Bobby. Similarly, the detectives Dupond et Dupont become Thomson and Thompson in English, Jansen and Janssen in Dutch, Schultze and Schulze in German and so on.

The Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay adapted the Gogol’s Revizor theater piece, entitling it The guy from Quebec, he was transposing the action of the part of Russia to her home province.

There are cases of adaptation often in the translation of poetry, theatrical works and advertising.


A calque is a translation method whereby the translator translates a phrase or sometimes a word of the original language literally in the target language, transposing elements of the phrase word for word.

The result is often catastrophic: in The Empire Strikes Back, the English sentence This is why your friends are made to suffer becomes, in French, C’est pourquoi tes amis sont faits pour souffrir.


Compensation is a translation process in which the translator bypasses stylistic difficulties in the source text by introducing stylistic effects elsewhere in the target text.

For example, many languages have two forms of the second person pronoun: informal and formal (in French, tu and vous, in Spanish and Usted, in German, du and Sie, to name a few examples). In English the distinction does not exist, forcing the translator to use compensation, either by using first names or nicknames or using syntactic formulations considered informal in English (I’m, you’re, gonna, dontcha, etc.).


A borrowing is a translation process in which the translator uses a word or phrase in the source text as such.

A borrowing is normally written in italics if it is not considered to have been incorporated into the language.


A paraphrase is a translation process whereby the translator replaces a word of the source text by a group of words or a phrase in the target language. Example: translating the English noun brinkmanship in French with “stratégie du bord de l’abîme”.

Translator’s note

A note from the translator is a note that the translator adds to supply information it considers useful on the limits of translation, the source text culture, or any other information.

Untranslatability of poetry and puns

Two fields where texts graze as the most untranslatable are poetry and puns: poetry, due to the the importance played by the sounds (rhyme) and the rhythms of the source language; puns, by the fact that they are closely linked to the genius of the source language.

Having said that, many mentioned translation processes can be used in such cases. For example, a translator may introduce a new pun elsewhere in the text to “compensate” an “untranslatable” pun.

An amazing counterexample

A novel that may seem untranslatable is The Disappearance of Georges Perec, which does not include a single time in his text the letter e. This translation was however achieved, including in English (A Void by Gilbert Adair, 1995), where this letter is even more common in French. In other languages, the translation could be achieved by omitting another vowel (a in Spanish and Japanese, o in Russian).

Translated from Wikipedia

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