2009 - Book

'Untranslatables' is not a dictionary. It is not an encyclopaedia. It is not a language course, a grammar book or linguistic research: it is an imaginary word universe that shows gaps and (im)possibilities. It reflects the inability to name everything there is, and the indomitable human desire to do so. It is a colourful answer for the grey zone in our daily vocabularies.

Untranslatables, a guide to translingual dialogue is a book I made in collaboration with Elisa Marchesini, Christoph Schwarz and Yolanda de los Bueis. It treats the untranslatable word both as an artefact and as a political symbol: when a certain language introduces a foreign concept or a conceptual nuance for which there is no word in the own language, we can talk about ‘linguistic hospitality’ (Paul Ricoeur) or even stronger: ‘linguistic ‘adoption’ (Schopenhauer). What happens when a word gets ‘adopted’ is that one does not only learn a word but acquires a new concept and view of the world. In that sense, this movement of ‘adoption’ is a trans-cultural trans-action.

We have gathered a broad collection of untranslatable words, contributed by a wide network of people all over the world, and have selected 33 of them for adoption. In the book, we have, paradoxically, tried to explain the untranslatable words, and even added some ‘how to use’ tips. But language already being a description and a translation, in our attempt to express the ‘real’ meaning of the word, we met with an even greater void. Confronted with this, we added some reflexive texts concerning the limits of translation and language in general. In that sense, this book honors the untranslatable as well as the impossible, and is a (poetic) failure.