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The problem of “untranslatable” words is one that translators will always face. Many people have heard of schadenfreude, the German word for taking pleasure in someone else’s pain. But this is merely one of many words that the English language does not have its own word for. Another such example is the word mudita, a Sanskrit word for when one finds joy in the happiness of others; a word that has the opposite meaning to schadenfreude. Words such as these are often incorrectly called untranslatable words.
The nature of language means that any word can be translated, even if it requires more of an explanation than those words which have a verbatim translation into the target language. Thus these words are not untranslatable; they simply lack a direct translation into English.
In some cases, these words serve only to create problems for translators. In others, these words without direct translation are instead adopted into other languages. These are known as loanwords, and there are many present in our day to day lives that we simply fail to realise come from other languages. On top of the more conspicuous example of schadenfreude, certain words we use quite frequently are actually loanwords. Faux pas, café and kindergarten are three common examples of loanwords. Faux pas and café are quite obviously derived from the French language, and many people would recognise them as French words, but it is not something that we think about when we use them. Kindergarten is a more obscure example. The word comes from German, literally translating as ‘children’s garden’, and is a very commonplace word used every day, especially in America, yet many people would not be aware of its Germanic roots.
When languages adopt the words of other languages, they can either take on the same meaning, or it can be altered slightly. For example, if we again take the French example café, which directly translates to ‘coffee’, this has clearly not taken on the same meaning in English as it does in French. However, in Italian, many English words are implemented into their language, such as the word film, which has the same meaning in both languages. This word is taken straight from the English language and is not even adapted to behave the same way grammatically as other Italian words.
The adoption of these words between various languages shows us that languages are constantly evolving and adapting with the world, and also how languages can learn from each other to improve their lexicon.