Every language has at least a few words which leave translators smiling ruefully – or perhaps sighing with despair when a big deadline is coming up. Those words that quintessentially belong to their home country and which have no exact one-word translation. Every skilled translator knows that no word or phrase is truly untranslatable, of course – one of the most amazing things about language is how flexible it can be at expressing any idea imaginable, and translators are experts at reshaping form while preserving meaning. But capturing a short, snappy expression can still be a complex process, so we thought it’d be interesting to take a look at a case study in German-to-English translation: the elusive “doch”.
For those of us who aren’t fluent in German, “doch” (which rhymes with a Scottish “loch”, for example) is a classic example of a supposedly untranslatable word. It’s one of those difficult ones to define – it can mean all sorts of things, and as a consequence you can see it pop up either as a single-word sentence (as a question or as an exclamation) or thrown into the middle of almost any other sentence. Despite that, sometimes a one-word translation will actually do the trick, as we see below:
“Das ist doch interessant!”
“That really is interesting!”
“Morgen fahre ich in Urlaub.” “Doch?”
“I’m going away on holiday tomorrow.” “Really?”
In these cases, it’s clear enough: “doch” is either intensifying the rest of the sentence or, as a question, expressing a sort of polite surprise and interest. “Is that so? Do go on!” Helpfully, the English word “really” can often do both duties as well. All sorted, then: that’s a nice, clear-cut bit of translation work. But there are other cases where it’s less obvious. You see, the other way of using “doch” is a function that the English language simply doesn’t have: a third way of answering a “yes or no” question.
Let’s take an example. Imagine a school classroom where a teacher is getting a little bit frustrated with one of her pupils who isn’t writing down what he’s supposed to. Hasn’t he got a pencil, she asks of him? But the child promises her that he has got a pencil, contradicting her negative question.
“Hast du kein Bleistift?” / “Haven’t you got a pencil?”
“Doch!” / “????”
Here, then, is the core of our problem: a one-word answer to a yes-or-no question. The two obvious answers don’t work at all for us here: if the child answers “no”, he’s actually agreeing with the teacher – which is no good, because that’s not what he said in German! And if you think the answer is “yes”, try saying both the question and then the answer out loud.
“Haven’t you got a pencil?”
Nobody answers that kind of a question with a “yes” in English – it’s just not how we use the language. So the obvious answers actually aren’t so obvious, or so useful, after all.
Interestingly, if you went back a few hundred years, you’d find the English language used to be capable of handling a word like “doch” without even breaking a sweat. Up until the era of Early Modern English, around the time of William Shakespeare, we had two very handy words: “yea” and “nay”. Despite what many people think, these two didn’t transform into “yes” and “no” over time. In fact, the truth is that back then all four words had different meanings and they were all used, depending on the circumstances. “Yea” and “nay” were used to answer affirmative questions, while “yes” and “no” answered negative ones. If we still used these words in the same way today, the question-and-answer session could go one of these four ways:
“Have you got a pencil?” “Yea, I have.”
“Have you got a pencil?” “Nay, I haven’t.”
“Haven’t you got a pencil?” “Yes, I have.”
“Haven’t you got a pencil?” “No, I haven’t.”
That’s all well and good for William Shakespeare, of course, but here in the future with our computers and our jet planes and our two-form affirmative/negative system, we have to work with the language we’ve got.
So how do we handle a problem like this? Maybe we have to step back from the idea of a one-word answer. It’s not a perfect option, but part of being a good translator is knowing when to compromise. In this case, it’s more important for the translation to sound good and match the meaning, than for it to be a word-for-word match which doesn’t really make sense.
(In other contexts, of course, there are sometimes other considerations that mean we absolutely must keep to a strict word count. Maybe we’re translating a poem, where rhythm and metre matter a great deal. Maybe it’s a printed document with a large illustration on the page, and we have to keep things short to avoid breaking the page layout. Or maybe we’re translating a user interface for a piece of software, in which case we might be restricted by character counts. Questions like these could take up an article all their own, though, so we’ll leave those considerations for another day and assume that in this case, we can be at least a little bit flexible with our wording.)
So what are our options? Remember, the teacher’s question was based on a negative, but so is the student’s. We also know that this is a report of someone speaking out loud, so we can afford to be a little bit colloquial in our style. Do you suppose we could write “I haven’t not got a pencil”? No, I didn’t think so either. As any English writer will know, double negatives are – if you’ll pardon the pun – a big no-no. As well as being considered “bad English” by most readers, they can come across as ambiguous or “too clever”: a sort of politician’s answer to an awkward question. Plus, in our case, this is far too long of an answer for what’s supposed to be a short, snappy exclamation. How about this, then?
“Haven’t you got a pencil?”
“No, I have!”
What an odd turn of phrase! A negative followed by an affirmative. But actually, people talk like this all the time. Have you ever heard someone say, “Yeah, no, I completely agree”? This is what we meant when we talked about the flexibility of language back at the start of this article. Everyone knows exactly what the child means when he gives that answer, and many people probably wouldn’t even think there was anything strange about it unless they saw the phrasing pointed out in this way. It’s short, it’s effective, and it conveys exactly the same meaning as the original German even though it relies on completely different rules. I think we’ve found a winner!
So there you have it. The untranslatable made translatable, through the application of a little grammatical knowledge and some creative thinking. We hope you’ve enjoyed this insight into the kinds of decisions translators make every time they sit down at their desk.