What is the difference between translation and interpretation? The difference is very straightforward. Translation is written while interpretation is oral. Our blog topic today touches on the former and its importance in the globalized world that we live in right now. When translating, translators represent the conduit of passing information back and forth, from language source to language source. This involves understanding cultural and linguistic elements of both languages. This understanding is critical because untranslatability can happen due to different reasons.

For linguistic translatability to occur, languages must share common linguistic expression so that the same meaning is retained. For instance, Mandarin speakers tend to greet people by saying, “你吃飽了嗎?” which literally means “Have you eaten?”. Even though the Mandarin greeting can be easily translated into English – “Have you eaten?”, the same meaning (of greeting people) is not evoked in English. To English speakers, this might sound odd because they would probably perceive as an invitation to have a meal. However, when translated into Cantonese, the oddity would not be reflected since Cantonese speakers also adopt the same manner of greeting people by saying, “你食咗飯未啊?”. Hence, linguistic untranslatability occurs in English but not in Cantonese. Apart from greetings, linguistic untranslatability can also happen in metaphors and jokes.

Cultural untranslatability occurs when languages do not share a common cultural understanding. This is especially conspicuous when it comes to food culture and onomatopoeia. As mentioned in our previous blog post, onomatopoeia differs across languages – some meaning might be lost during translation because languages such as Japanese places more emphasis on onomatopoeic expressions, as opposed to Swedish or Spanish. Another stark example of cultural untranslatability would be translating the Indian food item, “thosai”. In English, this food item can be simply put across as “Indian pancake”. However, the cultural representation of this “Indian pancake” to English speakers differs from “thosai” since “pancake” is inferred as something “that is soft and tastes like flour”. According to Indians, “thosai” is however, not soft and tastes slightly sour due to fermentation. Hence, cultural untranslatability can occur because of the absence of a specific cultural representation in the target language.

In conclusion, as much as translators strive to retain the meaning and evoke the same reaction in their target readers, it is not surprisingly that the translated word is not a 100 percent representative of the source word. In academic terms, there is no 100 percent transfer of meaning, only high equivalence is possible – retaining as much as meaning as possible. This skill is thus, delegated to the translators. Expertise and experience are two very important prerequisites of producing good pieces of translated work. At Scribers, our translators are not only fluent and competent in two or more languages, but also take linguistic nuances very seriously. As a quality service provider of translation, we ensure that we keep up with the latest trends in linguistic and cultural expressions across languages and industries. We strive to maximize our customer satisfaction and take pride in our flawless track record.