How to Handle Untranslatability in Translation

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Linguists, Business Owners

In our last article, I discussed some of the most commonly used translation techniques but I didn’t really dig deep into why they are used. In this article, I will get to the core of the article as I discuss a scenario called untranslatability.

First, what is untranslatability? Cambridge Dictionary defines this concept as the fact of being impossible to translate (change into a different language). In other words, this term refers to something that is not translatable.

In some cases, translators are faced with words or expressions that can simply have no equivalents in another language. This is the case for some literary genres such as poetry even though linguists encounter some random expressions or utterances as they translate.

Why would there be no equivalents in other languages?

Reasons why there may be limited terminology in a certain language vary. However, one of the most important realities is that translation doesn’t deal with terms. Yes, terms can be utilized to convey the intended meaning but translation deals with meaning.

There are many branches of linguistics that best explain why translation is a complex process. All the studies such as pragmatics (study of how context affects the meaning), syntax (study of how single linguistic forms are combined to form sentences), semantics (branch of linguistics concerned with meaning), and related subfields are found in each language and translation takes them into consideration.

Another main reason for lack of equivalence is the fact that translation deals with cultural aspects of a language. Language-specific expressions are unique to a culture, which are usually not found in another language. Since equivalence is one of the major translation techniques, lack of equivalent terms constitutes a big challenge in translation.

How to Handle Untranslatable Concepts

When faced with untranslatability, a translator doesn’t simply give up but resorts to a number of options available to them. If the situation allows it, they can utilize one of the following techniques to convey the same or similar meaning to the original message:


This is a translation technique that consists in expressing a concept using different wording so that it is better understood in a different language. This technique can simply be called “explaining”. Paraphrasing doesn’t result in accurate translation because it only cares about providing an alternative meaning. It may use just a single term or longer wording based on the situation.


Equivalence is used to convey concepts that don’t have equivalents in the target language. In this case, the translator employs this technique to render the same meaning as the original using a different expression. Equivalence is commonly used to translate popular adages and literary writings which wouldn’t otherwise be accurately translatable.

The process of equivalence changes the entire meaning and crates a completely different idea in the target language. Somebody who doesn’t understand the original language wouldn’t necessarily know anything else than what they are told by the translator.

Equivalence in meaning is critiqued by some language experts because it alters the original meaning. Umberto Eco says that “equivalence in meaning cannot be taken as a satisfactory criterion for a correct translation”. This is because equivalence relies on synonymy, whereas it is commonly accepted that there are no complete synonyms in language (see Experiences in Translation, © 2001 by Umberto Eco, page 9).


Adaptation as a translation technique is resorted to if there is no lexical equivalence in the target language. It is a widely used technique, especially while translating into rare language whose terminology is limited.

This may require adapting foreign texts to accommodate new concepts in the target language. Even though it is critiqued for its limitedness in terms of how much meaning it really carries, adaptation is widely accepted as a way of rendering the language that would otherwise have no equivalence whatsoever.

In contrasting translation and adaptation, some language professionals define adaptation as a set of translative operations that result in a text that is not generally accepted as a translation but is nevertheless traced to a source text”.

Based on the nature of its rationale, professional translators differentiate between local adaptation and global adaptation. Local adaptation applies to concepts that are limited to the local culture and geographical location, while the global adaptation technique refers to concepts that are intended for the global audience.


As mentioned above, the translation process is not about merely changing words in a different language. The modulation technique, therefore, is used to convey the same meaning in the target language by introducing a semantic change. The translator uses this technique to avoid word for word translation. This makes the final product sound original to the target people in their original language.

Modulation cares more about the cultural meaning as opposed to lexical meaning. Using this technique helps to come up with coherent and culturally acceptable concepts in the target language. Cambridge Dictionary defines modulation as “a change in the style […]”, or “a small change that happens in response to something or is intended to achieve an effect”.


This technique alters the grammatical structure of a phrase or sentence without changing its meaning. In this style, the words in the source language would have different positions in the target language. The equivalent concepts are moved at the beginning, in the middle, or the end of a sentence to make the translation as idiomatic as possible.

The transposition technique is known for its idiomacy. In other words, translators who utilize transposition are highly knowledgeable and produce idiomatic translations. This technique is commonly used in world languages such as English, French, and others that have enough terminology and therefore can have semantic similarities but employ different grammatical categories.


Lexical borrowing is taking words or expressions from one language and using them in a different language without translating them. The purpose of borrowing can vary. However, the most common reason for borrowing is the lack of lexical equivalence in the target language, which necessitates borrowing terminology.

There are many foreign concepts in the English language that were borrowed from other languages. For example, cliché, post scriptum (p.s.), curriculum vitae (CV), and et cetera (etc.). To remain faithful to the source language (since there are no complete synonyms in language), professional translators prefer using this technique to avoid losing the original meaning of the words or expressions. Sometimes the borrowing technique is used to create a stylistic effect.


  • Cambridge Dictionary, © Cambridge University Press & Assessment 2023
  • Experiences in Translation, © 2001 by Umberto Eco (Translated by Alastair McEwen), p. 9

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