The Washington Post

How to translate an ‘untranslatable’ book

Jacques Lezra is Professor of Comparative Literature, Spanish, English and German at NYU, and Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Quinn Dombrowski

In 2009, my colleague Emily Apter approached me with a highly eccentric proposal: could I help translate a French dictionary of untranslatable words?

I said yes. I like paradoxes, and I’m also interested in how translation works, philosophically as well as practically. I’ve had a long, rich, and vexed relationship with translation—maybe more even than most people who teach Comparative Literature, as I do.

I grew up between Madrid, Tangier, Wheeling and Caracas; my household spoke English, Spanish, French, and some Arabic; Hebrew and Jaquetía, the subdialect of Spanish spoken by the Sephardic community in Tangier.   Nothing was ever just one thing, in just one language. Now I teach literature and political philosophy, and I often teach works in translation—comparing different English versions of, say, a French work, so my students can see how every translation is also an interpretation of the work.

The work that Emily proposed we translate—along with Michael Wood, a friend–wasVocabulaire européen des philosophies: dictionnaire des intraduisibles,” published in 2004. Its authors (over a hundred contributors from across Europe, Russia, the U.S., Brazil, and Morocco) set out to create an encyclopedia of philosophical, literary, and political concepts that defy easy–or any—translation from one language and culture to another.

It begins (appropriately enough) with “abstraction, abstracta, abstract Entities,” and closes with “Wunsch,” German for “wish,” or désir or souhait in French.

Five years, six translators, countless hours of disagreements and debates and drinks and debacles later, “Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon”appeared from Princeton University Press. It’s more than 1,300 pages.

The project provided me, and my co-editors, with a vivid sense of the history of how people think, and how societies think differently from one another. The “Dictionary” aspires to do the same. For example: spirit is not the same as mind, but both are used to translate the German Geist. Happiness, which retains an old etymological connection to chance and happenstance (in English, at least), is different from bonheur, which doesn’t, and from German Glück and Seligkeit, which split “happiness-as-good-fortune” and “happiness as moral virtue.”

Castilian Spanish has two verb forms to English’s one, and thus two ways of saying “I am silly.” One indicates a passing condition (“Estoy tonto,” “Today, right now, I’m just silly, or foolish, or out of whack”); another a permanent and determinative condition: “Soy tonto,” “I’m a fool (and there’s nothing you or I can ever do about it).”

These may seem trivial examples, but consider the opening and closing of this well-known sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident … the pursuit of happiness.”  Are American “truths” the same as Greece’s aletheia or Russians’ pravda? What about “happiness”?  Can I pursue it in America, if what I want to pursue is le bonheur? What do English and French do with the German word Dasein? It’s a word generally left untranslated in philosophy—meaning roughly existence, an existent being, life, a life form; in French it can mean something like “human reality,” the time of existence. In Italian, it’s something closer to being here. It’s a notoriously hard term to think about, and the “Dictionary” entry on it reads like a philosophical throwing-up-of-the-hands: here, this is how other languages have failed, now you try to translate it.


The project has been controversial in at least three ways.  The most obvious one: isn’t it self-defeating to translate a set of self-styled untranslatable terms? If we succeed, won’t we have failed, or at least shown that the original idea, that these terms are untranslatable in some important way, was off base?

This depends on what one means by “untranslatable.” Cassin and her team believe that an “untranslatable” word is not one that cannot be translated, but rather a word we can’t stop trying to translate, aware always that we haven’t quite hit it, that it isn’t right. This isn’t a particularly satisfactory definition, but it gets at the difference between a word like “apple” (which we might say is fantastically translatable, and has been since Eden) and a word like “happiness,” which isn’t, one person’s happiness and good fortune, and one language’s, being another’s tedium or worse.

The second: Cassin’s project began in part as a protest against the dangerous imperial spread of English. Wouldn’t it be counter-productive, if not self-defeating, to translate this very, even excessively European cri de coeur into the very language it seeks to resist?

English—commercial English, the language of tourism, of the Internet, Hollywood—has spread monochrome wings over the globe.  The extreme form of this drift toward world English is probably the pseudo-language that’s come to be called globish, or “decaffeinated English,” a sort of international-boardroom, stripped-down language divested of metaphors and localisms, in which “to chat” can become “speak casually to each other” and a “kitchen,” the “room in which you cook your food,” as the journalist Robert McCrum once noted.

Won’t a “Dictionary of Untranslatables”be a further, perverse weapon in the globalization of English?

Not necessarily. One of the goals of the project is to show English its own oddities—to show the English language, and speakers of that language, that its concepts are often borrowed from abroad. Like many immigrants these English words from abroad within English come bearing unassimilable and surprisingly valuable cultural debris that does not, cannot, or should not get worn or melted away. Rather than globalize English, this “Dictionary of Untranslatables” helps re-provincialize the language. We get a keen sense that “happenstance” lives in “happiness” when we see what happens to the word as it becomes “bonheur” or “Seligkeit.”

But in that direction we run up against the third way in which this “Dictionary of Untranslatables”is controversial. Are the editors really saying that there’s an exclusively French, or Greek or Castilian experience of truth or happiness? Doesn’t this lead to the oldest forms of linguistic nationalism, or to a form of relativism, or to defeatism?

This is not a foolish objection, but it misses the mark. Human institutions are built on terms that are more like the word “happiness” than they are like the word “apple.” Acknowledging that the concepts on which we build these institutions, our expectations, and our forms of life are tied to the languages in which they take shape and are expressed does not mean abandoning the task of making these institutions better, more equitable, more precise, and it doesn’t mean granting privilege to one experience or one identity or one tradition over others. It means agreeing that the project of building these defective institutions is an endless and often a violent one, beset by injustices that need to be expressed and imagined in words we will have to translate again and again, for ourselves and for others.

Show Comments
Most Read
Next Story
Mignon Fogarty · July 16, 2014

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.