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.
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The recent BBC Radio 4 programme entitled ‘Something Understood: Translation’ provides an interesting insight into the often misunderstood world of professional translation.
Literary translation is surely one of the joys of life: juggling words and playing with language, navigating the tricky anomalies between one tongue and another, attempting to capture the essence of a literary text in a foreign idiom, and yet it is not a simple case (as has been emphasised in previous blogs) of replacing one word with another.
The BBC programme, presented by Mark Tully, explores the complications and joys of translation in this illuminating documentary. As the programme notes, we in western society are brought up with the idea that translation is a straightforward process, the direct transcription of a text. As the programme notes, there is now a whole academic discipline, Translation Studies, dedicated to the understanding of this delicate, complicated process which involves the conveying a message to a larger audience.
The documentary cites several amusing examples about how even simple messages can be mistranslated, quoting signs and notices in hotels, shops, stations, and restaurants across the world. The fact that even straightforward words and phrases can be mistranslated is testament to the necessity of translating into one’s native language only; understanding a language is not the same as being able to write it flawlessly.
The documentary makes the obvious point that the translation of a legal document and that of a poem are entirely different, but adds the interesting snippet that the western tradition is relatively unusual in having only one word to describe the process of rendering a text from one language into another. The word ‘translation’, claims an interviewee on the documentary, does not take account of the degrees of translation, which is perhaps better conceived as a spectrum rather than a process. In the Indian tradition, translation is seen as a form of re-writing and the medieval vocabulary distinguished between types of language and text, and the methods used to translate these texts, such as paraphrasing for some and a more literal method for others.
The documentary raises the problem translators encounter when some words do not exist in both the languages involved in any given translation process; Portuguese, for example, has a word to describe ‘an emotionless state, a profound melancholic nostalgia’ (as defined by the documentary), but this particular word has no equivalent in English. The programme considering the difficulty of translating emotions and cultural concepts which are foreign to the target audience, and indeed the translator himself. Translation is implicitly presented in the documentary as an intensification of the reading experience, as the translator has to grapple with the text, get into the mind of the author and the characters, immerse himself in the setting of the story. As the documentary points out, the translator has to have a deep appreciation of the text in order to have the skill and patience required to render that text in a faithful a way as possible for the target readership. The translator must, notes the documentary, be ‘accurate without being mechanical’, and capture both the ‘sense and spirit’ of the work. Obviously not all nuances of the language, setting and cultural context of the original can be retained in translation, but it is the translator’s job to retain as much of the original as possible. If the author is still alive, he can act as a guide or adviser to the translator.
The documentary raises the point that the distance between different cultural concepts is not so great when translating between two European languages, for example, or between an Indian language and English, if that Indian language is one which is spoken in an urban area and belongs to a culture which has undergone a lot of English influence. On the other hand, books about areas of rural India, the programme notes, often include very different cultural concepts and a large lexicon with no equivalent in English, which means the translator has to be more creative and is perhaps less able to remain faithful to the original text.
The documentary also quotes author Salman Rushdie, poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Ted Hughes in this fascinating exploration of the processes and intricacies of translation.
Learning a new language can be a challenging yet rewarding experience. If you’re considering on taking up a new language, you might want to consider a few aspects to help you along the way. Here are five steps to picking up some new lingo.
1. Immerse yourself.
When you’ve decided what language you’d like to learn, then immersing yourself in that language can help. Listen to as much of your new language as you can, whether it’s films, television, radio, podcasts, speech based apps or music. It doesn’t matter if you know very little at this stage. Listen to the pronunciation – how are words pronounced? Listen to music and podcasts whilst you’re going to sleep. You may not think it will help but honestly you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll pick up.
2. Learn key words and phrases.
Learning key words and phrases, such as greetings is a simple but effective way to learn a new language as a beginner. Learn popular sayings and words you may need if you were to ever visit the country of your language. Key words and phrases are a basic starting point for any language learner and from here you can begin to learn other words and phrases with similar meanings or on a similar topic.
3. Tackle the present tense.
After you’ve learnt a few basics in your new language, learning words or phrases in the present tense is a good learning structure for a beginner. Learning in the present tense is a great way to communicate with others. Once you’ve figured out the present tense language, you can start to move on to learning past and future tenses.
4. Practice makes perfect.
Once you’ve learnt some basics and vocabulary, practicing your newfound skills is important if you want to progress with your learning. Try speaking your new language as much as you can and get others involved. If you don’t have anyone with whom you can test out your new speaking skills, consider interactive learning. There are many online programs that offer language speaking and can help you test your progress: check out free language level tests, or online games to get started. If you’re really committed, consider visiting the country of your new language in order to test out your skills with locals. Or, if traveling isn’t in your foreseeable future, find a pen pal in your country of focus to practice your language with a local.
5. Extending your learning.
If you’ve started to learn a new language by yourself, you might want to consider how you can progress with your learning. One way to do this is by classes or online courses. There are many different types of classes and courses you can attend and both offer different benefits depending on your lifestyle and circumstances. In addition, there are many online platforms and apps to help you extend and progress further with your learning. Many are also free to use and flexible, offering you a perfect opportunity to further your knowledge and skills.
Written by Zoe Wells
A dedicated freelance writer from the UK with a passion for exploring new things. Zoe loves content creation, reading classic literature and learning new languages. She is currently writing for Language Trainers Online, which provides tailor-made Skype language classes for individuals and businesses worldwide.