I'm a bit confused as to how certain words or phrases in other languages can't be translated into another. Such as in, Arabic to English there are certain things that can only be understood properly in Arabic, and the translation into english loses it's meaning slightly.

Why can't we translate it so it retains the original meaning? And if this is due to a word in English not existing to portray it. then why can't it just be invented?

closed as too broad by GoldenGremlin, NVZ, tchrist, P. O., Edwin Ashworth Aug 20 '16 at 16:41

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  • This is a deeply philosophical question. The short answer is that different languages have different vocabularies and different syntaxes which means translation can't be 1-1 either lexically or syntactically. Imagine a hypothetical primitive language with only 12 words. Do you think you could translate Moby Dick into that language? Much would be lost. You could of course invent new words/syntax in that language, but if you invent too many, there is a philosophical question about whether or not it is the same language. – GoldenGremlin Aug 20 '16 at 11:58
  • (a) Cyclohexanone 2,4-dinitrophenylhydrazone is 'in English', but (chemistry) students don't usually meet the term until they've had a few years preparation. A certain amount of background is necessary for the term to be understandable. Are you concerned solely about correctness of the written form, or whether it's reasonable to expect most people to understand what is written? – Edwin Ashworth Aug 20 '16 at 13:18
  • (b) Once understood (and indeed if not understood), cyclohexanone 2,4-dinitrophenylhydrazone is a well-defined term. However, most words etc in English are polysemous, many highly so. My 'petrol blue' is perhaps appreciably different from yours. Your 'casual' may have less of a pejorative flavour than mine. FIFA's use of 'goalkeeper' may not be that found in any dictionary. And I'm sure Arabic will have similar complexities. Style can affect nuance: some versions of the Bible have switched generic he to second-person statements, but the thrust is changed. Translating from English to English! – Edwin Ashworth Aug 20 '16 at 13:29

This touches every aspect of language and language is an incredibly complicated concept. If languages are not structured the same way in every aspect meaning gets lost. Of course if they were structured the same way in every aspect it would be the same language. (I am ignoring cryptography here.)

Just consider this example about vocabulary.


Every language is full of semantic lexical gaps. It the semantic gaps between the two languages doesn't match you cannot translate literally. Those gaps tend to be fewer with basic concepts (father, mother, hunger, etc.) and get a lot more when it gets more abstract.

Already one degree of kinship further there are no different words for a female cousin and a male cousin in English. If you translate from a language that makes that distinction within one word you lose some of the meaning it originally had.

Sometimes there are also abstract concepts that just not exist in another language, like the German Gemütlichkeit that has been considered so long as untranslatable because nothing really fit its German meaning that English just adopted it.

You could go to every aspect that makes up a language and see that there are reasons that make a completely lossless translation impossible. Just look at this list of grammatical genders in different languages and its just one aspect that has influence on perception and meaning of the language. That's just one part of grammar, besides grammar there dozens of aspects that have impact on the meaning of what was said or written - or signed.


First of all we need to understand the biggest barrier to translation.

  1. Transparency - how does it cater to the needs of the native speakers and the target audience.
  2. Fidelity - how does it correctly pass on the underlying message.

When you translate you have to compromise on these two things. The existing vocabulary, social and cultural norms puts on a restriction to how lucidly you can communicate your message.

You can add new words to the language depending on the need and it is actually happening, even this very moment. Scholars go through every written material available to them and based on the usage and other factors new words are being added to English language.

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