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…
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