Four Foreign-Language Books With Untranslatable Titles

The joys of learning foreign languages are many. After all, they hold the key to new fields of literature and film, they allow us access to new nationalities of people, and, of course, they open your eyes to new shades of meaning. While English is one of the most flexible languages in the world, boasting one of the largest vocabularies, certain ideas exist beyond its realm of possible expression. It is up to translators to approximate them. In some instances, however, this is impossible. Here are four examples:

1. Kokoro (English Translation: "Heart"), by Natsume Soseki

This classic early 20th century Japanese novel is set in the transitional period between the Meiji and modern eras of Japan's history. It is widely understood to be an examination of the psychological side-effects of major social change on the average and unassuming Japanese citizen of the period. While the rendering of the title for all major English translations of the work is "heart," this could easily muddy up the far more specific meaning of the original Japanese title. In English, the word "heart" can be used for two purposes: to refer literally to our blood-pumping organ, or to more figuratively describe the sentimental and emotional qualities often associated with the organ. The Japanese have a separate word for each of these purposes. "Kokoro" is meant to describe the more sentimental side of "heart." It can also be translated as "emotion," "mind," or, sometimes, even "the answer to a riddle."

2. L'Étranger (English Translation: "The Stranger"), by Albert Camus

This work, narrated by a European protagonist living in French Algeria who is completely lacking in attachment or emotion, is many-faceted: Some see it as a commentary on the alienation of modern life. Some see it as an exploration of life as a white colonist in a colonized country. The title in French, "L'Étranger," captures both of these meanings. It is true that this French word can be, and often is, translated as "stranger." However, it is also used by French speakers when referring to any type of foreigner. Many have suggested that the dual-meaning of the original French title is intentional on the part of Camus. However, regrettably, this clever bit of wordplay is lost in translation.

3. Chinmoku (English Translation: "Silence"), by Shusaku Endo

Another Japanese work, Chinmoku tells the story of two Jesuit missionaries' struggles to protect Japanese Christians in the midst of the 17th-century mass-killings at the hands of the Buddhist government. The missionaries face a moral dilemma in whether to encourage their flock to hold fast to their faith, or to allow them to publicly renounce it in order to avoid torture and execution. In parallel, the missionaries themselves suffer a spiritual crisis over the issue of how God could stand idly in the face of such suffering. The "silence" of the title refers to the silence of God. However, the Japanese word "chinmoku" can also be translated as "reluctance," or "inaction." In this way, the original Japanese title refers not only to the silence of God, but to the reluctance of the missionaries in allowing their flock to publicly abandon their beliefs. This suggests, perhaps, that the task of alleviating the suffering lies not only in the hands of God, but in those of the missionaries themselves.

4. Die Verwandlung (English Translation: "The Metamorphosis"), by Franz Kafka

Gregor Samsa, a man who has spent his life paying off his forefathers' debts, awakes to find himself transformed into what the author describes as "some sort of monstrous insect." The 1915 novella finds its drama in Gregor's adjustment to his new life as a monster. In a 2014 article for the New Yorker, the translator Susan Bernofsky discusses the difficulty in refashioning the German title into English: "Unlike the English 'metamorphosis,' the German word Verwandlung does not suggest a natural change of state ... such as the change from caterpillar to butterfly." In fact, she continues, it is a word taken from German fairy-tales to describe an intentional or inflicted transformation, such as that from a curse. The English language, despite its far larger vocabulary, has no word or phrase which can briefly express the same phenomenon.

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Dave Child

Dave is the founder of Readable.io, and has been building websites since the early 90s. He's one of those fortunate people who gets to do what he loves for a living.

       


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