An upbringing by a secular Jewish mother meant that the my quotidian vocabulary, and that of of my sister, came to be smattered with a handful of Yiddish words, many of which we did not consciously realise belonged to another language until later in life, often when we used one of these words in the course of a conversation and our interlocuteur asked for clarification about the meaning of the term used. Furthermore, we came to notice that the lexicons of our goy (Gentile) acquaintances were not sprinkled with such wonderfully expressive terms as ‘schmuck’, ‘schlep’, ‘schamltz’ and ‘chutzpah’.
These words seemed to us to contain nuances not found in English equivalents (and finding such shades of nuance and hints of meaning in different words is the joy of language-learning). What word other than ‘schlep’ could more accurately convey the disgruntled effort involved in heaving box after box of your sister’s possessions up four flights of stairs as she moved into university halls? (Admittedly my parents were lumbered with the bulk of the schlepping, but that’s beside the point.) What word other than ‘schmaltz’ could be more apt for conveying the cloying sentimentality of many American films? There are many people who cannot be labelled anything but ‘schmuck’. In addition to the shades of meaning conveyed by these words, there’s always something very satisfying in the sounds of those syllables. The sounds of certain syllables, the nuances not found in equivalents in other language, and the emotional attachment and sense of history entrenched in different languages (something which will be subsequently discussed in relation to Yiddish) are all problems professional translators must battle with when dealing with the slippery problem of conveying the same sense and meaning of a text in a different language.
The Wikipedia article entitled ‘English words of Yiddish origin’ shows are prevalent such words are in the English language; many Anglophones probably do not even realise when they are using words from Yiddish: ‘schnook’, ‘schnoz’, ‘shpiel’, ‘schmooze’ and ‘shtick’ are words that no doubt embroider most native English speaker’s vocabularies, while ‘glitch’, ‘Kitsch’, ‘klutz’, ‘nosh’, ‘schnaps’ and ‘tushie’ are other words of Yiddish origin which no doubt pepper many an Anglophone lexicon.
The use of Yiddish words as part of an English vocabulary also provide a link to a common and individual past: the mainstream use of many Yiddish words show the influence of Jewish culture on contemporary society, and for many are also attached to memories of parents, grandparents or more distant relatives. My occasional use of Yiddish words reminds me my childhood, and no doubt reminds my mother of her own mother and childhood. They resonate with a depth of semantic and emotional meaning. The use of these words links back to the turn-of-the-century immigration of our great-grandparents and thousands of others fleeing Eastern Europe pogroms for the refuge of Britain or America. While we can conjure up only a smattering of Yiddish, they had only a few words of English. This Teutonic addition to our vocabulary is a link with the past, identifying us with distant relatives and what is now seems distant history.
What about when it comes to professional translation of such terms? An illuminating study might be to find out whether, in a French translation of an English book containing Yiddish words, the Yiddish terms are retained in their original language, or transposed. What I do think the example of the proliferation of Yiddish words in English demonstrates is that despite the cries of the Academie Française, Academia della Crusca and other language watchdogs pained by what they see as the invasion of their Romance tongues by the English language and its nefarious influence, one language can enrich another, rather than impoverish it.
For those hungry for more information about the Semitic aspect of modern English, read Leo Rosten’s glossary of Yiddish words collected in Hooray for Yiddish! A Book About English, The New Joys of Yiddish, and The Joys of Yinglish. Or watch Annie Hall.
Beginners generally learn foreign languages through the use of direct translations and reassuring equivalents. X in Language A equates to Y in Language B. Beginners learn are taught that there are clear translations in the foreign language for all terms and phrases in their mother tongue; becoming fluent in a language is just a question of learning the vocabulary which translates the words and mastering the grammar which orders those words into phrases.
To a great extent this is of course true. Yet one of the lovely things about having a fluent command of foreign languages is that, as one’s ability with a language develops, one comes to realise the beauty of untranslatable words, the satisfying frustration of the fact that there just aren’t always equivalents between words in different languages. Different languages have words which add nuance, deepen hues of meaning or describe concepts which simply do not exist in other tongues.
I pointed out to some French friends a few weeks ago that there is no real equivalent in English for that wonderful Gallic term ‘dépaysement’. It can be explained, roughly, as that weird feeling you get when you’re abroad and you don’t feel quite at home, but it is not the same feeling as homesickness and not quite identical to culture shock. Such a clunky explanation neither captures the essence of the French word nor mirrors its succinctness, and lead to slightly blank looks on the faces of English speakers when such an explanation is proffered. Can it be, then, that different nationalities think differently? Or that speakers of different languages do not see the world in the same way? This debate has raged for years and this blog is not the place to discuss it at length but such issues raised by the existence of untranslatable words in different foreign languages are worth mulling over.
This frequent lack of direct translations for words sprinkles joy into language-learning and is also one of the reasons professional and literary translation cannot be replaced by the cold, unsophisticated hand of machine translation spurting out Google-de-gook in a pathetic imitation of the eloquent art that is professional or literary translation.
I have often felt a frustrated contempt for the constraint of the English language which does not provide a satisfactory equivalent for the useful French term ‘décalage’. The word refers to a small gap between things but can also be used in a more figurative sense to describe a sort of mismatch, something which cannot quite be translated into English without resorting to clumsy and imprecise paraphrases.
My admiration for this concise elegance of the Gallic tongue is counteracted by the lack of suitable translation in French to capture the English adjectives ‘cheesy’ and ‘creepy’. French only allows ‘not deep’ to translate the English word ‘shallow’, while my French friends also argue that there is no real equivalent for ‘aware’ in French, and that the word ‘conscient’ in their mother tongue does not cut the mustard. Such instances of untranslatable words and concepts adds to the richness of the language-learning process and sparks fruitful debate between lingo geeks.
Of course it is not only between English and French that one finds a lack of direct equivalents to translate different words. The German word Schadenfreude trips off the tongue of any English speaker when the situation demands it; it has been adopted into our language because there is no English equivalent. And yet clearly the concept also exists in the minds of native English speakers, judging by our ready use of the word.
Why then are some untranslatable terms adopted from one language into another while others are not? The French term esprit d’escalier refers succinctly to that feeling you have when you’re leaving someone’s house after a dinner party and it is only as you descend the stairs of their flat that you think of the witty or cutting remark which did not come to mind at the opportune moment. We are all familiar with such a feeling. Why then is this French term not more widely used in English to describe this very sensation? Food for thought. (This cliché – and here is another example of a French word adopted into English to compensate for a paucity of English equivalents! – is, incidentally, translated by the rather more unpoetic ‘material for reflection’ in French. Even when words do have an equivalent in a foreign language, they do not necessarily possess the same beauty or resonance in all languages. Such is the frustrating joy of language-learning.)
Much has been written about untranslatable terms and the beauty of words which do not exist in all languages. Christopher J. Moore’s short text In Other Words: A Language Lover’s Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World is a fascinating selection of words and concepts used in other tongues but for which there is no equivalent in English.
A film entitled ‘La cour de Babel’ recently came out in France. The title is a play on words, a transposing of ‘la tour de Babel’, the ‘tower of Babel’ to mean instead the ‘playground of Babel’ (which has rather less of a ring to it in English). The title is apt, as the film focuses on a group of immigrant schoolchildren all speaking various different languages and all attempting to learn French in order to integrate into their adopted country and be able to follow lessons in their second language. The young protagonists of this documentary film have all joined what in French is called a ‘classe d’accueil’, or ‘welcome class’ in a school in Paris’ tenth arrondissement. The majority of them will remain in this ‘classe d’accueil’ for a full academic year, as they begin to learn, or consolidate their existing knowledge of, French as a foreign language. They are taught French in French, the lingua franca of the group, but the teacher ensures she speaks slowly, using easily-understandable vocabulary and grammatical structures to ensure her pupils do not feel overwhelmed by the formidable task of quickly acquiring a foreign language. The pupils remain in the ‘classe d’accueil’ before they are judged to have a grasp of French advanced enough to cope with mainstream schooling.
Tough Young Teachers, a recent BBC Three documentary, also briefly highlights the difficulties of adapting to schooling in a foreign language. In the first episode of the series, the novice teacher discovered a girl from Francophone Africa in his Year 7 class spoke no English; speaking no French himself (despite a Carthusian education), the teacher was forced to temporarily recruit an older pupil to use an online translator to communicate with the Year 7 pupil. There was no mention of the pupil being given extra English lessons, or being provided with a professional translator to work at her side as a learning support assistant would with pupils with learning difficulties.
While Britain is as multicultural as France, with some inner-city schools recording 90% of their pupils as having English as their second language, a system based on the French ‘classe d’accueil’ method would no doubt benefit many.
Of course, it could be argued that complete immersion is the best way to learn a foreign language; it would have been interesting for the documentary to have revisited the Francophone pupil at the end of the school year to note her doubtless greatly improved command of the English language. Yet the pupils in the classe d’accueil filmed in the French documentary are also all experiencing immersion, taught as they are in French. Recruiting a professional translator or interpreter to accompany every pupil without a sufficient grasp of their language of education would surely break the majority of school budgets.
The ‘classe d’accueil’ also has the advantage of easing the pupils into their new school environment. They have a chance to make friends with fellow foreigners (while, again, using French as the lingua franca), learn about the culture of their adoptive country and often gain a much-needed confidence boost that they are soon to be linguistically able to cope with the demands of the French education system. This method is surely preferable to that of leaving immigrant pupils feeling isolated and bewildered, surrounded by native speakers of the language who can follow what their peers are saying and what the teacher is talking about. The ‘classe d’accueil’ method also removes any unnecessary burdens on the teacher: it is tough enough to teach a class without having to worry about accommodating pupils who do not even understand the language of instruction.