Everyone who speaks a foreign language will have experienced the frustration of not being able accurately to translate a word of their native tongue, as well as the delight of encountering a new word which explains something not manifest in their own language. When the latter instance proves useful or common enough, it results in a loan word being introduced into another language. This occurs when the word describes something specific to a place or culture: kangaroo, kayak, manga, teepee, tsunami, typhoon.
Loan words can also succinctly express something that is burdensomely complicated to describe: Gesamtkunstwerk (a complete work of art combining disciplines generally considered discretely); a portmanteau-word (a neologism which fuses two existing words and combines their meaning, for example ‘smog’ from ‘smoke’ and ‘fog’); and so forth. A further order is loan words which describe abstractions that are specific to a culture or are neologisms coined by writers to express particular concepts. In these cases, the very meaning of the words is difficult to translate; hence we get loan words such as Dasein, kitsch and nous.
Just as there are no exact synonyms, there is no exact translation, as every word has different origins, connotations and usage. Beyond that, there are philosophical problems with the use of language itself. As philosopher Graham Harman puts it in his book Weird Realism: ‘No literal statement is congruent with reality itself… The meaning of being might even be defined as untranslatability. Language (and everything else) is obliged to become an art of allusion or indirect speech, a metaphorical bond with a reality that cannot possibly be made present.’
The aim of Barbara Cassin’s Dictionary of Untranslatables is to address some of the philosophical and philological complexities of particular words relating to theology, philosophy, linguistics, psychoanalysis, aesthetics and history. It covers not only specific words or concepts but also aspects of linguistics that affect meaning (such as word order). To complicate matters, this dictionary is a translation of a work originally published in French. Despite a foreword, in which the editor explains that the entire text has been revised and supplemented for American publication, the English version is not without defects (discussed below).
Entries range from single paragraphs to many pages with boxed mini-essays on related matters, concluded by bibliographic references. ‘Subject’ gets 22 pages, ‘truth’ 20, ‘proposition’ 16, ‘soul’ 15, logos 15, and ‘mimesis’ 15. Included are discussions of English terms, such as ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’, which will be familiar to Anglophones and some of which seem to be carry-overs from the French edition.