How to Translate Words/Phrases with No Exact Translation

April 11, 2019

When you translate something from one language into another, there are several things that you need to be careful about, from using the right words and following the rules of grammar to using the right slang or idiom when there is no exact translation of the word/phrase in the destination language.

Words/Phrases with No Exact Translation

Although most words and phrases lend themselves to translation fairly easily, there are certain words which just can’t be accurately translated, such as the Japanese wabi-sabi (finding beauty in imperfections) and the French depaysement (the feeling of not being in one’s own country or being a foreigner).

So what do you do when you come across words like this? Is it ok to use a different word that approximates the meaning? For example, could you just say “beauty” instead of “beauty in imperfections” for wabi-sabi? Or is it more appropriate to use the entire phrase?

Translating to Create a Certain Effect

Consider the context in which the word is being used. There are times when it is better to use a word that people will understand easily. For example, if you are translating a logo and the idea is to keep it short, then you might want to forego a long translation. You might just want to say “beauty” instead of “beauty in imperfection” or “feeling out of place” instead of “the feeling of not being in one’s own country.”

Of course, your logo might not sound quite so catchy anymore if you use a slightly different translation. In this case, you might want to try out several different translations which mean close to the same thing and then decide which one conveys your meaning best.

Translating for Accuracy of Meaning

There are other times when explaining the word with no exact translation is a better idea. For example, if you’re writing a business letter and there is space to explain your full meaning, then you can do so. The same is true if you’re translating a book. In these cases, you can explain the meaning of the word within the text itself or you can use a footnote.

Contact us to learn more about what type of translation is appropriate for your purposes.