How would you describe the sound of a car honk? In fact, something as universal as the sound of a car honk can be depicted differently across languages! For example, native Japanese speakers will perceive it to be tu-tu, native French speakers will hear it as tut-tut while native Korean speakers will express it as bbang-bbang. Onomatopoeia is basically a formation of a word that is used to represent a sound associated with a referent. The etymology of onomatopoeia has its origins in Greek. In Greek, ὀνοματοποιία, coined from ὄνομα for “name” and ποιέω for “I make”, simply describes the sound of the source in a phonetic manner. Stark examples include sounds made by animals, such as meow and woof.

Onomatopoeia is quite common across languages, however, some languages appear to place a larger emphasis on onomatopoeia. Japanese onomatopoeia is considerably challenging even for translators. Japanese onomatopoeia can be divided into 擬声語 giseigo and 擬音語 giongo. The former refers to sounds associated with humans and animals while the latter refers to sounds associated with real sounds that can be heard within the context. Giseigo include high pitched sounds produced by women, such as kyaakyaa and sounds made by frogs, such as kero kero. Giongo include sounds from streams, such as sarasara or from falling raindrops zaazaa.

A study discovered that a bulk of Japanese onomatopoeic expressions was not translated in Swedish. The conclusion was of a sociolinguistic nature, taking into account that onomatopoeic expressions were possibly considered to be childish and uncouth, hence, the translator would not be able to retain the original meanings of the onomatopoeic expressions without affronting Swedish readers. In one example, the translator used the Swedish expression plaskar to substitute two different Japanese onomatopoeic expressions, bachabbacha and bochabocha. These two onomatopoeias refer to water splashing sounds but bochabocha describes a deeper water level. In another instance, the translator used the Spanish expression crac to substitute two different Japanese onomatopoeias, pokipoki and kotsun. These two onomatopoeias refer to the sound when something is hit. The former indicates the cracking of fingers while the latter describes the sound of something tiny and hard hitting a hard surface lightly. When translated in Spanish, the difference is not spelt out.

It is interesting to note how universal sounds can be perceived differently according to speakers. There are also certain onomatopoeic expressions which are available in the source language but unavailable in the target language. In addition, nuances of these onomatopoeic expressions are usually overlooked. This makes it a challenge for translators when they have to retain the original meaning of the onomatopoeic expression as much as possible. Omission would be highly unadvisable and undesirable. Alternatively, translators can strive to paraphrase or elaborate by adding descriptions even though a close substitute is available. Are there any onomatopoeic expressions in your native language that are deemed almost untranslatable?

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