For a work of fiction, I have a character who speaks Russian, German and Hungarian, none of which I speak. The character wrote a fictional novel that appears only in its English translation, but the translator (also fictional, of course) occasionally rears his head to say "I do not know exactly how to express this next sentence, because the author uses the [Russian/German/Hungarian] word [------], which has no obvious counterpart in English."

A good example is the German word Ungeziefer, which appears in the first sentence of Kafka's "Metamorphosis." It's the thing that Gregor Samsa finds himself transformed into, and is alternately translated as "insect," "bug" or "vermin."

Another good example is the Russian word prividénije (привидение), which Gogol uses (in the vernacular skaz) to describe the reappearance of the deceased Akaky Akakievich. It appears to most commonly translate to "ghost," but I believe Constance Garnett uses "apparition." Others refer to a "corpse." It's unclear whether Akaky is corporeal. Is he a phantasmal projection or a sort of zombie?

I would love to collect great examples of these in those three languages. I suppose one way to start would be if I had highly non-prescriptive [German/Russian/Hungarian]-to-English dictionaries, where the editor listed ever defensible translation and not the one he or she thinks is best. I have fluent speakers of all three languages on hand to comment on whether the word is in fact highly ambiguous, but don't want to pass the buck to them to produce dozens of possible examples from scratch.

Any thoughts on a good source for this hunt, either in print or online?

  • 1
    Привидение is a singularly bad example. It's a very straightforward and generic "ghost", phantasmal in its very etymology (-vid- is the root for seeing; pri- is an allative prefix similar to the Latin ad- of apparitio). Culturally, much like in English, a ghost is usually, but not necessarily, a floating spirit; it may take the appearance of a corpse, like Banquo's in Macbeth, while being a thoroughly different phenomenon from an actual walking corpse. Generally, I don't feel it's a good idea to do this kind of thing without speaking the actual languages. Commented Mar 11, 2018 at 16:47
  • Are names of mushrooms and plants acceptable? In Hungarian there are many mushrooms which have names, and I haven't found any English names for it, every encyclopedia or book uses the Latin names for it. It seems English only has names for some of the most common ones, while Hungarian seems to have a name for every species and subspecies found in Europe.
    – vsz
    Commented Oct 18, 2022 at 6:38


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