The joy of German untranslatables

I always start with schadenfreude.

That gets their attention. Why, I ask my brilliant German students, do we use a German word instead of an English one? Is it, as a certain sort of English person might choose to believe, that we are inherently nicer and need to borrow from the lexicon of those nasty Germans for such a spiteful feeling? Can it even be expressed in English?

I ask them to try, and they come up with hopeless suggestions like Othersufferingjoy and Delight In The Pain Of Others. Clumsy, unwieldy – and altogether too Germanic.

That brings us on to the question of untranslatable words and the various articles on them doing the rounds on social media – for example 60 Beautifully Clever European Words With No English Translation and 20 Awesomely Untranslatable Words From Around The World (see links below).

You may have clicked on one of these and read about the Finnish word for the feeling of unbearable shyness that overcomes a man when he realises he has to tramp home through the snow in the company of a local clergyman, the Hungarian for the urge to be first through the revolving door of a grand hotel, or the Gaelic for an alcoholic visitation by the ghost of a recently deceased village misfit.

You know the sort of thing. The Czech for pretending not to know that your knickers are showing. The Hindi for milling about at a wedding. The Chinese for duck turd broth.

This is all nonsense, I tell them, mere clickbait based on a false premise. I explain that as well as an occasional teacher of clever Germans who come here as a reward for doing well in their university exams, I am a translator, and that we translators do not believe in untranslatability. Why, that would be like an accountant not believing in arithmetic.

There are unusual words and phrases, I concede, but they’re not untranslatable. They just haven’t met the right translator yet.

And with that I set them to work.

I divide them into groups and give each maybe half a dozen German ‘untranslatables’ harvested from 18 Weird German Words You Won’t Believe Exist and similar sources. Their task is to translate them into English, and the rules are simple: no literals, no definitions, no explanations. Their invented terms must sound authentically English.

I cannot over-emphasise the difficulty of this task. It is hard enough for an experienced translator to find the right words in their mother tongue for relatively normal foreign text, but a step beyond to invent equivalents in a second language for some of the weirder terms found in your own.

I award chocolate for the best efforts, and my Germans make a good go of it – the physics PhDs and maths whizzes as well as the philosophers and linguists. There was the portmanteau relunchionship for Bratkartoffelverhältnis (literally home fries affair, someone who cooks and cleans in exchange for occasional affection), to misimprove for Verschlimmbessern (the attempt to improve or repair something but only making it worse in the process), and tie-denier for Krawattenmuffel (one who doesn’t like wearing ties). Fair play to them and well worth the locally-sourced cocoa solids.

But along with the verbal invention, there is also the inevitable clunkiness – lost in a taste labyrinth for Geschmacksverirrung, a condescending term for bad taste, or far-away craving for Fernweh, a sort of frustrated Wanderlust. Just a tad Teutonic in the rendering.

Some you feel they ought to nail but never do. Surely they could do something with Sitzpinkler – the sort of sap who sits down like a woman to pee? And what about Kummerspeck, literally grief bacon, the weight you put on from comfort eating? Loss lard? Heartbreak handles? Sad fat? You need a bit of Sitzfleisch – the sitting meat of long endurance – to wait for the right translation of the word itself. And is there really nothing – well, punchier than slap-inviting face for Backpfeifengesicht?

It never quite happens for these terms. I’m still waiting for the killer rendering of Erklärungsnot, the explanation poverty that overcomes lying politicians and cheating schoolboys when they are put on the spot, and which must surely one day come.

I actually don’t know if I believe 100% in my own professional propaganda about translatability. But as I watch my German students struggling to find the mot juste – students so able it’s almost impossible to challenge them for more than about five minutes – I feel a translator’s satisfaction to see them finally grappling with something at a difficulty level they can respect. As I watch their brows furrow and their mouths stretch into grimaces of imaginative effort, I feel a certain – how shall I put it? – yes, a certain…schadenfreude.