Untranslatable

One of the great beauties and freedoms of the Internet Age (and there are precious few) is that we are free to publish things and make sweeping assertions without bothering to cite our sources. Our collective knowledge is a hazy sphere, of half-remembered facts and unverifiable data. It is a pleasant and easy land, not of milk and honey, perhaps, but of bits and pieces.

I say all this by way of apology for the unverifiable and frankly indefensible ‘study’ I am about to quote, which has assembled a list of the most ‘untranslatable’ English words. The list runs as follows:

  1. Plenipotentiary †
  2. Gobbledegook †
  3. Serendipity †
  4. Poppycock †
  5. Googly †
  6. Spam †
  7. Whimsy †
  8. Bumf †
  9. Chuffed †
  10. Kitsch †

Sharp linguistic eyes will note a few utterly forgivable errors here. Kitsch, for example, is not an English word. You would assume, therefore, that in some languages, at least, a rough equivalent could be found. Also, plenipotentiary has perfect mirrors in Romance languages (plénipotentiaire, for example, would probably get close to the nub of it in French). Serendipity has been imported into various languages wholesale, and spam is pretty international (unless, of course, you’re translating Monty Python).

All that said, the idea that a language – even that most international of languages, English – has some irreducible cultural core simply not available to the non-native speaker, is an attractive one. Do I teach English, in fact, or international English? International English (aka bad English) is to the English I know what Esperanto is to Latin – washed out, denuded, softened around the edges; good enough for selling a few bolts of cloth in Hong Kong, perhaps, but hardly a polyvalent cultural vessel.

Which probably makes me sound a bit Brexity and little-Englander, what with my Monty Python and my warm beer; but that would be poppycock.