5. THE UNTRANSLATABLE - THE 'SNOW' CONUNDRUM!
'Hyggelig' in Danish, 'gezellig' in Dutch...words that describe a particular sense of being, concepts that are so inherent to the national culture that all one can do in trying to find an equivalent translation is to come up with an approximation that describes the feeling of cosiness and familiarity you experience in a warm home, the joy of being with your friends, or the pleasant atmosphere at a party. The good simple things in life essentially. 'Lekker gezellig natafelen' presents a greater challenge to the translator perhaps than 'het lasersnijden, ponsen, buigen, lassen, draaien, frezen, vonkverspanen en ontvetten van metaalproducten'. The latter is universal (the physical properties are the same wherever you 'turn, mill or laser-cut') whereas the former is specific to a cultural context. And this makes it tricky to translate. How do you convey a concept that is alien to the reader?
I recently listened to the album '50 Words for Snow' by Kate Bush (who took the pop world by storm as a teenager in 1978 with Wuthering Heights). Apart from conjuring up musically the complexity of snow in its various forms, the title of the album reminded me of the often-misquoted claim that the Eskimos have no word for 'snow'. Of course, as Franz Boas, the German-born American anthropologist, pointed out, Eskimo-Aleut languages have about the same number of distinct word roots referring to snow as English does, but the structure of these languages tends to allow more variety as to how those roots can be modified in forming a single word. A practically unlimited number of new words can be created in the Eskimo languages on any topic, not just snow, and these same concepts can be expressed in other languages using combinations of words. Studies of the Sami languages of Norway, Sweden and Finland conclude that the languages have anywhere from 180 snow- and ice-related words and as many as 300 different words for types of snow, tracks in snow, and conditions of the use of snow.
Edward Sapir's and Benjamin Whorf's hypothesis of linguistic relativity holds that the language we speak both affects and reflects our view of the world. This idea is also reflected in the concept behind general semantics. In a popular 1940 article on the subject, Whorf referred to Eskimo languages having several words for snow, citing that "English speakers have the same word for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow hard packed like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven snow, etc. To an Eskimo, this all-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable...."
And yet, here we are in the Netherlands where one word - 'gezellig' - can suffice under almost any conditions, in any season, to describe a situation that is almost indescribable in English, or at least requires an equivalent perhaps of Eskimoan proportions to include all of the associations that the word conjures up all at one and the same time. So what's the translator's choice? To keep the word 'gezellig' as it is? To provide in parentheses a short list of associative words that explain as well as possible what is being conveyed in a given context, such as at home before the fireplace on a cold and rainy winter's evening or a summertime picnic in the park with close friends? I suppose that might be one way out of the 'snow' conundrum.