How to Tackle Cultural Untranslatability

A Dictionary Entry of the Word “Diversity”

The Adversity of Cultural Diversity

Cultural diversity is perhaps the only place where there’s beauty in difficulty. When that difficulty has to do with untranslatability, it means the culture is so well preserved and unique it can’t be transferred to another language.

While it bodes well for the culture’s survival in an increasingly globalised world and shows how differently they see the world, getting a native speaker of English to have the same perspective can be a monumental task.

How Do Translators Do It?

Foreign translators understand that some words and phrases in the second language can be incomprehensible to the target language speaker. This is because they don’t belong to the same culture, and their way of looking at the world—their experiences and upbringing—is vastly different from each other.


It may be impossible to align the two, but they can be brought closer. Here’s how.

1.      Free Translation

Literal translation remains faithful to syntax and word meaning, but when it comes to free translation, you’re at more freedom to explore near implications instead of direct ones in the target language.


Also known as adaptation, it’s akin to finding an equivalent.


For example,

  • In Spanish, tomar el pelo directly translates to “grabbing someone’s hair”, which might be misconstrued in English until you realise it actually means teasing someone.
  • Lithuanians see raining cats and dogs as raining axes.
  • What’s a cold shoulder for the English language is the palm of one’s hand for the Japanese.
  • The Portuguese language has its own take on not giving a fig, and it’s estoucagando e andando, which is eloquent in all its crudeness.
A Spanish Grammar Book with A Pink Cover and A Cup of Tea beside it On A Cluttered Surface

2.      Borrowing

Sometimes, there’s no need for free translation, and interpreters take to borrowing them in their original form because the word explains itself within a specific context. But that would be oversimplifying it.

There are also times when translators feel that the equivalent’s not doing justice to the source, so they take to adopting it in their translation with a short explanation of its meaning.


Frequent borrowing can lead to official adoption.

For example,

  • Words such as avatar and guru have distinct Sanskrit roots, but they’re used, as they are, in both English and Sanskrit speakers.
  • Spanish snacks like empanadas, churros, and croquettes are as untranslatable in English as the dishes they represent.
  • Ad nauseum comes from Latin, and while it means “to a tiresome degree” in English, most people still prefer using the original utterance.
  • Several French phrases like bon voyage, au revoir, merci, bon appétit don’t even need translations.

Bridge the Cultural Gap with Foreign Language Interpretation in Chicago

Difference doesn’t beget indifference. Diversity doesn’t negate inclusivity, and in this disjointed world, there are language communications services like Jeni Translations & Interpretations who’re working hard to bring people together by translating the untranslatable.


Their Spanish to English services aren’t limited to courtroom interpretation but extend to translation, transcription, and even the American Sign Language.


Call them at 312.852.0788 or send them a message to benefit from their translation services.







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