Some Words Just Defy Translation
|Sep 18|| 2|
English might have the most words of any comparable language, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t learn a thing or two from other languages. The following 10 words were enjoyed by the ancient Greeks and Romans but can’t really be translated easily into English. Does this mean Latin and Greek speakers were more logical than English speakers? Probably definitely.
-que—this is an enclitic conjunction. Don’t know what that means? That’s cause English doesn’t have enclitics. Sorry, I can’t really explain this to people who don’t know what an enclitic is. But trust me, you’re really missing out.
atque—a compound word that combines the conjunction “-que” with the preposition denoting motion towards (“ad”), atque doesn’t connote a mere link like our “and” does; it implies that the two items are closely connected in reality. If you picture our “and” as holding two words or clauses by the hand, Latin atque handcuffs them together.
iste—“that particular man, the one by you or otherwise connected to you” and therefore by extension also “that famous man.” That’s right, Latin has a second person demonstrative pronoun; try to picture what would fit in the semantic space between the “this” and “that” of English … for Latin, it’s iste. If this is turning your brain into a pretzel that’s because you have a non-twisty simplified English-speaking brain.
et — this word gently but resolutely links two words or clauses together while keeping them separated in terms of association. What can I say, English really is lacking in conjunction game.
ne—an untranslatable word that’s really more an indication of intonation than anything else. You wouldn’t understand.
ge—this is an enclitic that follows a single word or clause in order to give it special emphasis, so it’s basically the equivalent of underlining but in a spoken language. You can try translate ge as “at any rate,” but that’s just settling. Probably best to just learn Greek.
gar—never the first word in a sentence, usually the second, sometimes the third or fourth, gar is a tiny word that packs a big punch: it is used almost exclusively to indicate that the sentence it is in only exists in order to explain the sentence that preceded it.
ara—does your language have a single word that can express “this questioner has an anxiety,” or indicate the improbability of a question, or be used to explain something (“namely”), or indicate that the speaker is making an inference, or express consequence (“then”), or indicate the raised eyebrow of a speaker who is making a pseudo-syllogistic inference? Yeah didn’t think so.
toi—wow an ethical dative used as an enclitic particle! In English we usually have to resort to the midwest “Doncha know” or the medieval “Mark you” but these are just barely native poor man imitations that fail to encompass the semantic field or economic precision of toi.
nai—this is a single word that expresses EMPHATIC confirmation when English must resort to a phrase such as “damn straight” or such gross patois as the intensifier “really.”
Sarah Scullin has a PhD in Classical Studies and is Managing Editor at Eidolon Classics Journal.