Paper published in BABLE (45) 4 [1999, No.4 ] 289-300


Translatability vs. Untranslatability: A Sociosemiotic Perspective


Ke Ping



The problem of translatability or untranslatability is closely related to man’s understanding of the nature of language, meaning and translation. From the sociosemiotic point of view, “untranslatables” are fundamentally cases of language use wherein the three categories of sociosemiotic meaning carried by a source expression do not coincide with those of a comparable expression in the target language. Three types of untranslatability, referential, pragmatic, and intralingual ones, may be distinguished. On the understanding that the object of translation is the message instead of the carrier of the message, language-specific norms considered untranslatable by some linguists should be excluded from the realm of untranslatables. And since translation is a communicative event involving the use of verbal signs, the chance of untranslatability in practical translating tasks may be minimized if the communicative situation is taken into account. In a larger sense, the problem of translatability is one of degrees: the higher the linguistic levels the source language signs carry meaning(s) at, the higher the degree of translatability these signs may display; the lower the levels they carry meaning(s) at, the lower the degree of translatability they may register.



Throughout the history of translation the question “Is translation possible or impossible?” has been repeatedly asked and debated among philosophers, linguists as well as translators and translation theorists.  Some scholars and artists believe that virtually everything is translatable.  Newmark, for example, argues that the “untranslatables” can be translated indirectly by transferring the source item and explaining it if no parallel item can be found in the target language and no compensatory effect may be produced within the same paragraph.  Hence every variety of meaning in a source language text can be translated either directly or indirectly into a target language, and therefore everything is translatable.  (Newmark, 1989:17)

       Others (von Humboldt, Quine, Virginia Woolf, Derrida, to name a few) insist that translation is ultimately impossible.  Von Humboldt, e.g. maintains that all translations are apparently attempts at finding a solution to some insoluble problem. (Ke, 1991:10)

       Catford (1965) distinguishes two kinds of untranslatability, that is, linguistic untranslatability and cultural untranslatability.

       Linguistic untranslatability, according to Catford, occurs when there is no lexical or syntactical substitute in the target language for a source language item.  For example, the Danish Jeg fandt brevet (literally “letter [I] found the”) is linguistically untranslatable, because it involves structures that does not exist in English.

       Cultural untranslatability is due to the absence in the target language culture of a relevant situational feature for the source text.  For example, the different concepts of the term for bathroom is untranslatable in an English, Finnish or Japanese context, where both the object and the use made of that object are not at all alike.  (Bassnett-McGuire, 1980:32)


       The controversy over the problem of translatability or untranslatability stemmed from the vagueness of the notion of meaning and a lack of consensus over the understanding of the nature of language and translation.

       For example, Many people in ancient religious worlds were incredulous of the validity of translating as they believed that language was sacred and mystic, in which was hidden the will and order of God.  Based on that understanding of the nature of language, they tended to regard translation or any kind of contrived conversion of a divine message from one language into another as no less than profanity and vice (Steiner, 1957).   II Corinthians, for instance, contains the following passage in which the sacramental nature of language is asserted:


And I know that such a person ¾ whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows ¾ was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.  (II Cor. xii. 3-4)



       In this paper, the author will attempt a reconsideration of the age-old problem of translatability (or rather, untranslatability) from the sociosemiotic perspective.  The observations made are based upon sociosemiotic studies of the nature of language, meaning and translation.


1.  Sociosemiotic View of Meaning and Translation

A systematic study of meaning in translation was made by the present author (Ke, 1996) in the sociosemiotic vein and the following conclusions regarding meaning and translation were drawn:


          (1)  An attribute of the sign, meaning is the relationship between a sign and something outside itself.  Such a relationship is fundamentally conventional, i.e. language-specific.


          (2)  Three facets or dimensions of sign relationships may be distinguished: the relationship between signs and entities in the world which they refer to or describe is semantic; that between signs and their users (interpretants), pragmatic, and that between signs themselves, syntactic.  Corresponding to the three types of semiotic relationships are three categories of sociosemiotic meaning: (a) referential meaning, (b) pragmatic meaning (including identificational, expressive, associative, social or interpersonal, and imperative or vocative meanings), and (c) intralingual meaning (which may be realized at phonetic and phonological, graphemic, morphological/lexemic, syntactic, and discoursal/textual levels and is termed accordingly).


       (3)  Style in both its broad sense (features of situationally distinctive uses of language, i.e. the variations of regional, social, and historical dialects; or even such intralingual peculiarities as plays on words, acrostic poems, and rhythmic units) and in its strict linguistic sense (linguistic representations of the relations among the participants in an event of verbal communication, chiefly level of formality) may be reduced to identificational, expressive, social, and intralingual meanings for transference.


       (4)  Referential meaning, pragmatic meaning, and intralingual meaning are all parts of an organic whole.  They combine to make up the total meaning of an expression or a discourse.  But in different contexts the three categories of sociosemiotic meaning may carry different weight or show different degrees of prominence.


       (5)  Since the spectrum of sociosemiotic meanings carried by a linguistic sign in one language rarely forms a one-to-one correspondence to that of a comparable sign in another language, the translator, when striving to communicate the maximum number of meanings an expression or discourse carries in a given context, usually has to give priority to the most prominent or important one(s) of them, ensuring its/their correct transference in whatsoever circumstances and, if no other alternative being available, at the expense of the other meanings of the sign.


2.  Basic Causes of Untranslatability

From the sociosemiotic point of view, untranslatability is an undeniable reality, at least so far as the base units of a language are concerned.  Basically there are two causes underlying untranslatability:


       (1)  The concurrence or combination of referential meaning (RM), pragmatic meaning (PM), and intralingual meaning (IM) in a linguistic sign in different languages is a matter of convention.  The three categories of sociosemiotic meaning carried by an expression in one language will often not coincide with those of a comparable expression in another language.

       And quite contrary to the traditional belief that the referential or cognitive content is always the most important one in a verbal message, communication  and sociosemiotic theories have indicated that any aspect of the message carried by a linguistic sign, be it referential, pragmatic, or intralingual, may figure prominently in a communicative event.

       These two facts combined render it frequently difficult for the translator to find in the target language a specific linguistic unit which corresponds to the source language item on all the three levels of sociosemiotic meaning, i.e. referential meaning, pragmatic meaning, and intralingual meaning (when it is foregrounded or salient).  The Chinese greeting “Nihao, Biaoge!” (你好,表哥!”), for instance, can not be rendered into English with both its referential meaning (one’s male-cousin-on-mother’s-or-paternl-aunt’s-side-elder-than-oneself) and its pragmatic meaning (its phatic function as a form of address) accurately transferred.  After all, we would not greet in English a cousin of ours with something like “Hello, my male-cousin-on-my-mother’s-or-paternal-aunt’s-side-elder-than-myself!” since the minute difference the Chinese language makes between the children of one’s uncles and aunts against such parameters as male/female, paternal/maternal, and senior/junior is simply not lexicalized in English.


       (2)  Annotation, which is capable of elucidating virtually any kind of linguistic or cultural peculiarities, cannot be unrestrictedly employed, at least not in most literary works, for the practical reason that it would make the translation longwinded and cumbersome. (Just consider the case of movie translation, where annotation or other forms of explanation are usually not possible owing to the time limit).


3.  Three Types of Sociosemiotic Untranslatability

According to the property of the untranslatable element(s) in a source item, we may distinguish three types of sociosemiotic untranslatability, i.e. referential untranslatability, pragmatic untranslatability, and intralingual untranslatability.


3.1  Referential Untranslatability

Referential untranslatability occurs when a referential element in the source message is not known or readily comparable to a particular item in the target language.  The Chinese language, for example, has different names for several different kinds of stuffed wheaten food: baozi, jiaozi, and huntun.  But to the English speaker, all these have but one name ¾ dumpling (a small piece of dough, boiled or baked, often enclosing meat, fruit, etc.): the contrasts between these different kinds of stuffed food are not lexically represented in English.  Of course circumlocution or description may often help bridge the lexical gap.  Jiaozi, for one instance, may be “boiled dumpling with meat and/or vegetable stuffing”).  But awkward situation may still emerge sometimes, as is evidenced in the following case:


In a translation into an Indian language of Latin America, ass, was translated as “a small long-eared animal”.  The effect was to suggest that Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on something which closely resembled a rabbit.  (Crystal, 1987:345)


3.2  Pragmatic Untranslatability

Pragmatic untranslatability arises where some pragmatic meaning encoded in a source item is not encoded likewise in a functionally comparable unit in the target language, or where the exact pragmatic meaning(s) carried by the source sign is/are unclear or indeterminable due to historical reasons or to the intentional equivocation on the part of the author (as may be found in some theological and mystic writings).  Newmark (1988:114) notes that jolly in jolly good is mainly pragmatic, a slight middle-class intensifier, which can only be over-translated in French (drôlement) and under-translated in German (ganz, vielleicht) ¾ both languages missing the connotation of social class.

       Bassnett-McGuire argues that even a concept supposed to be universal or “international” may be untranslatable on some occasions, as is the case of the loose translation of the sentence I’m going home spoken by an American resident temporarily in London into French as “Je vais chez moi”.  The English sentence could either imply a return to the immediate “home” or a return across the Atlantic, depending on the context in which it is used, a distinction that would have to be spelled out in French.  In the latter case, the French translation should be something like “Je vais à mon pays”.  Moreover the English term home, like the French foyer (“hearth, furnace”) has a range of associative meanings that are not translated by the more restricted phrase “chez moi” (Bassnett-McGuire, 1980:33).


3.3  Intralingual Untranslatability

By intralingual untranslatability we mean any situation in which the source expression is apparently not transferable due to some communicatively foregrounded linguistic peculiarity it contains.  It differs from “linguistic untranslatability” as defined by Catford in that instead of including those conventionally followed rules of the language, it pertains only to those linguistic features that are foregrounded somehow in the context.  Intralingual untranslatability accounts for a majority of cases of untranslatability.

       Semantically prominent phonetic and phonological elements (known with some scholars as “phonaesthetic morphemes”), e.g. alliteration (“kith and kin”, “time and tide”, “might and main”, etc.) and rhyme, are frequently untranslatable.  That is perhaps one reason why Robert Frost asserts that “Poetry is what gets lost in the translation.”  One case of phonological untranslatability may be found in homophonous puns, e.g. the advertisement put up by a tire manufacturer: “It’s time to retire”.

       Graphemic meaning, which may be found across the smallest units or forms of the writing system of a language, is usually untranslatable, too.  For example, the Chinese proverb Bazi hai meiyou yi pie ne “Not even the first stroke of the character ba [ “eight”] is in sight yet” is used to denote a situation wherein there has not yet been the slightest sign of the beginning of something referred to, because the Chinese character ba is composed of two strokes (the left-falling stroke “丿, and the right-falling stroke “) .  One has to set on paper the first, left-falling stroke before drawing the second, right-falling one, and thereby spelling out the whole character.

       Difficulties may occur with the translation of morphological meaning and lexemic meaning (or morpheme-level and lexis-level intralingual meanings).  A few years ago, the Apple Computer set up a division called “Apple PIE”.  The PIE in the name is really the acronym of “(Apple Computer’s) Personal Interactive Electronics” (Personal Computer World, Nov., 1993, p.286).  Although this name may be put into Chinese as “(Pingguo Jisuanji Gongsi de) Geren Jiaohushi Dianzi Shebei Bu” (Apple Computer’s Personal Interactive Electronics Division ), the punning effect of the acronym PIE would still be lost.

       A much quoted example of intralingual untranslatability at the lexical level is derived from Shaw’s play Augustus Does His Bit:


The Clerk (entering): Are you engaged?

Augustus: What business is that of yours?  However, if you will take the trouble to read the society papers for this week, you will see that I am engaged to the Honorable Lucy Popham, youngest daughter of ¾

The Clerk: That isn’t what I mean.  Can you see a female?

Augustus: Of course I can see a female as easily as a male.  Do you suppose I’m blind?

The Clerk: You don’t seem to follow me somehow.  There’s a female downstairs: what you might call a lady.  She wants to know can you see her if I let her up.

Augustus: Oh, you mean am I disengaged.  Tell the lady I’m busy.  (My emphases)


The comic effect of the dialog derives from the “witty puns” (puns in which both members of the word-pun bear meaning in the context) used by Shaw: “engaged” means both “busy” and “under a promise to marry somebody”, and “see” means both “meet” and “discern”.  It is very difficult or flatly impossible to find Chinese expressions which may suggest the same meanings as carried by the two English words in this context.


       If referential and pragmatic untranslatabilities are relative, intralingual untranslatability is usually “absolute”, since languages differ from each other more in their structure (which, as we have come to see, may generate intralingual untranslatables if deliberately manipulated by the language user) than in the communicative functions they may be employed to perform.


4.  The Communicative Nature of Language and Translation and the Degree of Translatability

According to sociosemiotics, language is a signifying system which uses audio-vocal signs for human communication; and translation is a communicative event involving the use of verbal signs and taking place across linguistic and cultural boundaries.  Just like any other sort of communication, translation has its own purpose. The process of translation is therefore dynamic instead of static.  The thing to be carried over in translation is the message, not the carrier of the message, i.e. the linguistic elements served as functional units in the transmission of a message.  This understanding leads to several relevant conclusions about the problem of translatability and untranslatability:


       (1)  Many elements considered untranslatable just do not need to be translated.  These are items at the lower levels of linguistic description.  Basically they belong to the norms of a language, which are conventionally followed so that the message (the referential and pragmatic meanings) may be transferred; they themselves are generally not foregrounded in meaning (unless the speaker or writer intend them to be so.  The French numeral soixante-dix, for example, is formed of morphemes different from those that its English counterpart “seventy” is formed, but that does not prevent the two words from being inter-translatable, because they share the same referential meaning.  After all, it is the message these base elements carry instead of these elements themselves that are the objects of translation.

       Grammatical forms, which differ from language to language, are in most cases obligatorily used.  Their meaning is normally predictable and hence not at all salient.  The structure of the Danish sentence Jeg fandt brevet, to take Catford’s example, follows the norm of the Danish grammar that the definite article is postposited.  But this syntactic feature is not the object of translation; what is to be translated is the meaning of the sentence.  Since the same meaning may well be conveyed by different grammatical devices in different languages, this sentence may be translated into English as “I found the letter” with an adjustment made to the postpositive definite article brevet in Danish to conform to English grammatical norms.  The English translation is a perfect one, without any loss of the meanings intended by the author.  This so-called “untranslatable” (according to Catford) linguistic feature just does not need to be translated.  Thus at least part of the “untranslatables” which Catford and other theorists place under the category of linguistic untranslatability simply do not exist.


       (2)  Since in each specific context some part(s) of the message or some type(s) of the three categories of sociosemiotic meaning may carry greater weight  than the others, the fundamental communicative purpose for the occasion will be largely fulfilled so long as the most important part(s) of the messages or the most salient meaning(s) are properly transferred.  This means that the number of untranslatable elements will be pragmatically minimized when the communicative situation is taken into account.  The aforementioned Chinese greeting “Nihao, Biaoge!” ( ,表 ! "), e.g. can be adequately rendered into English as “Hello, Cousin!” because the phatic or social meaning (instead of the cognitive or referential meaning) of the phrase is the most important one in this situation of greeting.  Its correct transference is sufficient for the establishment or maintaining of the required social relationship in this situation.  It is for this reason that Newmark (1989:14) argues that the translator has to establish priorities in choosing which varieties of meaning to transfer, depending on the intention of the translated text and his or her own intention.


      (3)  Those who claimed the impossibility of translation were wrong in their understanding of the nature of translation, which they regard fundamentally as, in Newmark (1988:225)’s words, a “state”; what they are trying to deny is actually the possibility of perfect translation.  But translation (or, to be exact, translating) is more of a process than of a state (Just consider the practice of translating and re-translating famous literature throughout the ages!).  Only a state can be perfect.  translation is but a process in which the perfect or, to be more exact, the optimal solution ¾ the maximum equivalence of the translation to the source text (Ke, 1995:50) ¾  is (and should be) ever pursued by the translators.


       A quite distinctive opinion of translatability and untranslatability related to the above observations is provided by the German language philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1867), who proposes that the translatability of a text rests ultimately with the intrinsic value of the text.  We cannot assert, Benjamin claims, that a text is untranslatable just because it has not been successfully translated.  The question is whether there is anything in it that is worth translating.  If there is, the work will, despite its present untranslatability, be translatable some day in the future (Tan, 1991:220).  Benjamin’s view of “future translatability” throws light on the problem we are discussing from an angle not unlike that of sociosemiotics.  After all, translation means communication; the need or necessity of communicating a message hinges upon the relevance or worth of the message.   Efforts will be made to crack the hard nuts of “untranslatables” (or apparent untranslatables) if they appear worthwhile.

       Actually, absolute “untranslatables” are very few in the vast sea of translatables and relative translatables, for “as anthropologists have frequently pointed out, there is far more that unites different peoples in a common humanity than that which separates them into distinct groups.” (Nida & Reyburn, 1981:28) In comparison with the intelligent lives in the other parts of the Universe (there should be some of them somewhere in this infinitely great cosmos which we happen to find ourselves in), we human beings on the planet of Earth must be more alike to than different from each other.

       As a matter of fact, even for those apparently untranslatable base units, an ingenious translator may come up with a clever translation, which fully and naturally transfers the peculiar meanings of a source item, as is evidence by the following example:


As WWII just ended, a visiting U.S. warship sailed with much pomp and glory into a port in Britain.  High on its flagpole was a pageant on which was written “Second to None” (老 子 天 下 第 一 ).  A few days later, a dingy British gunboat was found to be moored by the American warship.  There was but one word on its pageant: “None”.  This typically English humor taught the arrogant Americans a lesson.  The pun was translated successfully into Chinese as:


¾Wuren bi wo hao” (“Nobody is my superior.”)

¾ Wuren” (“Nobody.”)



(Feng, 1997:186)


       Hence, viewed from the sociosemiotic vantage point, translatability or untranslatability is more of a problem of quantity than of one of quality.  The higher the linguistic levels the source language signs carry meaning(s) at, the higher the degree of translatability these signs may display; the lower the levels they carry meaning(s) at, the lower the degree of translatability they may register.  And from a long-term point of view, the more meaningful, interesting, or worthy a source expression or text is, the more translatable it is or will be.



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About the Author:

Ke Ping was born in Nanjing, China, and was educated at Nanjing University, where he read English Language and Literature and obtained his M.A. in 1987.  From 1987 to 1990 he was with the English Faculty of Peking University, teaching English-Chinese Translation and Chinese-English Translation.  Since 1990 he has been teaching and doing research at Nanjing University.  In 1993-94 he studied linguistics as a Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge.  He has published over 20 papers in the fields of translation theory, linguistics and English literature.  His work A Textbook of English-Chinese and Chinese-English Translation (Beijing: Peking University Press. 1991, 1993.), which adopts a sociosemiotic approach to translation and represents a major effort toward systematizing translation studies, has been well received in mainland China, Taiwan, and Hongkong.  He is now Associate Professor of English, teaching Translation, Contrastive Linguistics and some other courses.  The projects of study he is presently engaged in include translation theory and cultural history of translation.