An American Editor

February 26, 2014

On Books: Dictionary of Untranslatables

Over my career as an editor, I have observed that no matter how much I know about language and usage, I know very little. Consequently, I am always on the lookout for books to add to my collection that I can also use in my work as an editor.

Regular readers of An American Editor know that my primary rule when editing is that the message from the author must be unmistakably communicated to the reader. Should there be any possible doubt about the message, then the language used is questionable.

In that light, I have always assumed that certain words that are used in American prose have clear and precise meaning when used to convey an author’s thoughts. In most instances, I, like many editors and readers, failed to consider the broader concepts that certain words convey; I understood, or so I thought, the common, everyday meaning and assumed it was that meaning that the author was using.

Words, however, can be philosophical in the sense that a word can be both specific and can be used as a substitute for a broader, more conceptual perspective. In my early years, I learned, for example, that the Russian word pravda, which was used as the name of a Soviet Russia newspaper (Pravda), was translated as “truth” — read Pravda and learn the truth about what was happening in Russia and the world.

Unambiguous words — truth, vérité, Warheit — are used to translate the word pravda but, as the Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon (Barbara Cassin, editor, Princeton University Press, 2014 [English translation]; originally published in France as Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionaire des intraduisibles, 2004) notes, pravda also means justice. And the scope of its meaning as truth is limited: according to the Dictionary, “Pravda is never used to designate scientific truth.”

What the Dictionary does is trace the origins, usage, and conceptual meanings of a selection of words that are important in the worlds of literature, philosophy, and politics, yet which are not easy to translate (and sometimes are wholly untranslatable) from one language to another. The Dictionary illustrates that those words that seem translatable, such as pravda, actually have meanings and nuances that are important to understanding the concept of the word, which concept leads to a different definition than the standard translation implies as being the correct definition.

In its exploration of words, the article authors delve into the cross-linguistic and cross-cultural complexities of the words and their meanings. The terms chosen for exploration have had a great influence on thinking over the ages. The Dictionary cites a word’s contextual history and usage to give additional meaning to the discussion.

Consider the entry for “matter of fact, fact of the matter.” The discussion is of the expression “matter of fact,” which is “found in English philosophy, notably Hume.” The discussion dissects the expression in an attempt to establish its origins and meanings. Following a several-page discussion, the article ends with a bibliography. The bibliographies that follow each entry are interesting in their own right.

The idea of the Dictionary is to elucidate the differences the concepts of the included words and expressions have based on the language in which a word or expression is used, both originally and in translation. The languages are Arabic, Basque, Catalan, Danish, English, French, German, Greek (classical and modern), Hebrew, Hungarian, Latin, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, and Spanish.

The terms are often transferred from one language to another without change. For example, praxis and polis are used in a variety of languages without translation; they have become part of a second language’s lexicon as if they were original to that language. Other terms are often mistranslated, even if just in the sense that the translation doesn’t express the breadth of the word’s meaning in its original language (e.g., pravda).

The essays make for some interesting reading. Even if a particular word is not one that I would encounter in my daily editing, reading the essays makes me think about the words I do see daily. In other words, not only are the essays interesting in what they have to say about a particular word’s origins and meanings, but they help reshape my approach to words as an editor.

The Dictionary of Untranslatables is wonderful addition to my language library. I view the Dictionary in the same light I view Steven Pinker’s books on language: not as resource that I will daily open as I would my Webster’s Collegiate, but as a book to savor and think about and to learn in the broader sense of learning. For anyone interested in language, in words, and the scope of meaning that a word can encompass, I recommend the Dictionary of Untranslatables.

If you would like to see a sample entry, Princeton University Press offers a few samples. This link will take you to the page where you can view online, in PDF format, a few entries. You might find the kitsch entry particularly interesting.

2 Comments »

  1. […]   TOOLS: Dictionary of Untranslatables for all lexicon lovers. This was originally published in France as Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionaire des intraduisibles. (An American Editor) […]

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    Pingback by The Nitpicker’s Nook: March’s linguistic links round-up « BoldFace — March 26, 2014 @ 10:02 am | Reply

  2. […] spend more on the books. (This is one reason why I so willingly buy books on language [see, e.g., On Books: Dictionary of Untranslatables] regardless of the cost.) But these books do not fit into such an area; they fit more into a […]

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    Pingback by What Are They Thinking? UPs and the Road to Self-Destruction | An American Editor — July 14, 2014 @ 4:01 am | Reply


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