Are feelings translatable?

Published on 03/04/2023

It is likely that on more than one occasion you have had a feeling that is very difficult to describe in words. Basically they are feelings, by which human beings are characterised. Does the fact that it is difficult to express these feelings mean that they cannot be translated? We have already seen which words in the world are untranslatable. Are feelings among them?

1. Translating feelings is possible, but there are several aspects to be taken into account

As a translation agency, we receive numerous texts on a daily basis, some of which have to be translated into other languages. Whenever this task arises, we can do it, although sometimes the effort is greater depending on the languages to be dealt with.

Beyond the obvious linguistic differences, there are other details that must be taken into account to ensure that the work done by the translation company in charge of the project is good. We will now delve into the most important of them all.

2. The importance of colexification

One of the most important aspects to bear in mind is that of colexification, a term that is closely related to translation. It refers to words that express several meanings or concepts. A clear example of this is when dealing with English, specifically with the word funny. It could be translated as amusing, i.e. humorous. However, some English speakers when they speak of funny want to express the idea of odd, i.e. something strange.

As you can see, colexification affects the translation that is done, especially if there are feelings in the text to be treated. If this is not taken into account, the translation would not be entirely correct, since in some languages the word referring to a feeling may express something completely different from what would be meant in another language by the same term.

3. Examples of colexification

In order to understand better the importance of colexification in translating feelings, we will describe some examples. The first of these relates to the word anxiety.

This is an endemic disease which, unfortunately, like stress, has taken hold of a large part of society. But what do languages refer to when they mention this word? Those who are Indo-European use it as a kind of synonym for anger. However, the opposite is true in some areas located in India, as well as in Southeast Asia. In the languages spoken there, the word anger refers rather to repentance, as well as to sorrow.

We continue with the same example to address other meanings that the word anger has in different languages. Those with Austronesian origins use it to refer to pride, while in some mountainous areas located in the Caucasus it is directly related to envy.

There are many more examples of colexification like the ones described above, with many differences, especially between languages whose regions are separated by a huge number of kilometres. This shows that the way feelings are interpreted and communicated varies enormously, a factor that has to be taken into account when translating.

Between German and Italian there are no major colexifications in expressing feelings, and the same can be said of Spanish and Portuguese. However, if we compare the languages of these countries with the languages of much more distant regions, the differences are considerable and must be analysed in order to produce a translation that is up to the quality required of a good translation agency.

4. Some feelings have no translation

Although the vast majority of feelings can be translated taking into account colexifications, there are some feelings that cannot be expressed in another language with a synonym. This is demonstrated by the Japanese term age-otori which refers to when we look physically worse after cutting our hair.

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Virginia Pacheco

Blog writer and Community Manager interested in multiculturality and linguistic diversity. From her native Venuzuela, she has travelled and lived for many years in France, Germany, Cameroon and Spain, passing on her passion for writing and her intercultural experiences.

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