4 Phrases From Literature That Are Impossible To Translate

What, exactly, does ‘hwæt’ mean?
Impossible to translate phrases represented by a young woman standing in the middle of a well-lit room, holding an orange hardcover book.

Translation is often presented as an almost scientific process, in which a text is converted from one language to another in the most straightforward manner possible. Translators will be the first to tell you, however, that it’s far from that simple. Give any two people the same paragraph to translate, and the end result will never be exactly the same. Literary translation, then, is much more an art than a science, and finding the solution to a tricky translation can take quite a bit of time and effort. In fact, there are some sentences in literature that are considered impossible to translate.

The concept of something being untranslatable should be familiar, though it’s usually a bit of a misnomer. The German word Schadenfreude is called “untranslatable” because there is no single word in English that means the same thing, but you can definitely translate it to “the feeling of joy when someone else feels pain.” In literature, though, “untranslatable” presents more of a challenge. It can be difficult to keep all of the nuance in translation, and there can be strong disagreements. Let’s look at a few sentences and phrases that are “impossible to translate” — or at least impossible to translate without controversy — to see how people deal with the messiness of language and literature.

Impossible To Translate Literary Sentences

Beowulf

Beowulf is the first epic in Old English, but a modern reader would have a very hard time understanding its eighth century language today. The English language has changed so much that its grammar and vocabulary are nearly impenetrable. The poem presents problems to the 21st century translator in its very first word: Hwæt. While there are a number of theories, it’s unclear what exactly this one-word sentence is meant to convey.

A popular interpretation is that it’s an interjection, meant to call the listener’s attention. After all, Beowulf started in the oral tradition being written down. This theory goes all the way back to the Brothers Grimm, who wrote about the text. Translators have used a number of different interjections to try to capture its meaning: John Earle used “What ho!” in 1879, Seamus Heaney used “So!” in 1999, and Maria Dahvana Headley used the very modern-sounding “Bro!” in 2023.

While this is now the convention for translators working on Beowulf, there are also those who believe that hwæt isn’t an interjection at all. Historical linguist George Walkden argues that it isn’t its own sentence, and is instead the first word in a longer sentence. Instead of translating it “Listen! We have heard of the might of the kings,” he says it is more correctly “How we have heard of the might of the kings.” While this may seem like a small difference, it continues to attract attention because Beowulf is the very beginning of English’s literary life. This first word of the poem, then, is the first word of everything that’s come after.

Albert Camus’ L’Etranger

The most divisive line of L’Etranger (The Stranger) is also probably its very first: Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Maybe it’s because the first sentence is central to setting the tone for all that comes after, or maybe it’s just the primacy effect taking hold. In any case, it’s the first words you read from a strangely disconnected narrator who floats through the events in his life, barely affected by tragedy or the fact that he murders another man. Setting the right tone to enter this, then, is important.

The most common translation for this first line is “Mother died today.” It is probably the simplest, most natural-sounding in English. Yet in a New Yorker article, writer Ryan Bloom says that it fails to capture the original French’s tone. For one thing, it rearranges the sentence, and a word-for-word translation would be “Today, mother has died.” It doesn’t sound as casual, but maybe that is for the better. Another thing he takes issue with, though, is translating maman as “mother.” English has many words for someone’s female parent, and “mother” is the most formal option. What changes, then, if it becomes “Mama died today” or “Mom died today”?

Bloom decides the “correct” translation would be “Today, Maman died.” It more closely reflects the original grammar, and also uses the French “Maman” to try to more closely convey the character’s attitude toward his mother. To say that there is one “correct” translation is to oversimplify, however, and another translator could quibble with any number of Bloom’s choices. 

Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults

As far as literary controversies go, Elena Ferrante’s novels are not particularly divisive. They’re new enough that there’s only one English translation thus far, and the consensus is that translator Ann Goldstein’s work on them is excellent. Goldstein herself, however, has talked about the difficulties of translation, and has highlighted some of the more troublesome sentences. One of the hardest parts of translating Ferrante, Goldstein has written, is that she uses the Neapolitan dialect quite a bit in her writing. Here’s one sentence she highlights in a Vulture article from Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults

Mia zia allora si rivolse di scatto a quest’ultimo e gli disse che gli avrebbe tagliato il pesce – usò proprio quel vocabolo, in dialetto, con voce tranquilla, brandendo le forbici – se continuava a ridere.

And here’s how Goldstein decided to translate it:

My aunt turned to him abruptly and said she would cut off his pesce—she used precisely that dialect word, pesce, fish, in a calm voice, brandishing the scissors—if he kept laughing.

This word calls special attention to the use of a word in dialect, so Goldstein decided the best thing to do was to keep pesce in its original Italian and provide the English direct translation — “fish” — while not explicitly writing out what the aunt is actually referring to: genitals. Goldstein considered substituting an English slang word, but decided that this would obscure how this word is being used. The use of dialect conveys more than just a word’s meaning, it also reveals a character’s background, attitudes and more. Slang very rarely has a simple equivalent in other languages, so it’s impossible to translate without using other techniques to convey all this information.

Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad

Let’s go way back in time for this final example. These two works have been translated so many times, you could probably pick any sentence and discover a treasure trove of translation trivia. To focus on just one phrase that has caused consternation for hundreds if not thousands of years, we can look at oînops póntos.

The phrase literally means “wine-faced sea.” For the most part, translators go with the slightly adjusted “wine-dark sea.” The translation trouble isn’t so much in the words themselves, but in the fact that its meaning doesn’t make much sense. What does it mean for a sea to be “wine dark”? Thinking about it has spawned a number of hypotheses. Perhaps there was an algae outbreak in the Aegean Sea during Homer’s lifetime that colored the water with a reddish hue. Maybe there was a wine drunk by the Greeks that was actually blue. One of the more outlandish is that the Ancient Greeks actually saw color differently than us modern humans, and so to Homer, a red wine and a dark sea looked pretty much the same. 

None of these are verifiable — in fact they’re somewhat unlikely — and the simplest answer might just be that it was a poetic phrase that wasn’t meant to be taken so literally. It shows, though, just how impossible to translate certain phrases can be, particularly when it’s a text where much of the context is lost to time. Is “wine-dark sea” the best possible English version of the phrase to express what Homer wanted to express? It’s impossible to know. We do know that it’ll provide discussion fodder for many more centuries to come.

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