I am looking for references on un/translatability from the view point of theories of meaning.

In philosophy of language there is a variety of theories of meaning. On the other hand, there are different views on un/translatability in the field of translation studies.

I’m looking for works that put these two together, and study translatability from the views point of theories of language.

The two references offered in answers so far are good but quit old. I am looking for more recent studies as well.

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    I am a translator with many years of experience and can tell you that this is a fraught topic. The fact is that everything can be translated because everything can be deconstructed in L2 to make the meaning transferrable to one's L1. So, when people say that the word saudade in Portuguese cannot be translated they are wrong. However, as with any translation, there is often a loss or addition of meaning. Most translation scholars would agree with this fact. You can do this work yourself by looking up the work of these people: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Translation_scholars
    – Lambie
    Jan 30 at 17:35
  • This question seems to suffer from a paradox, namely that a theory that could combine the jargon of different fields, eras and countries to show that some statements don't translate, would likely run into the problem in their own work, which they are trying to prove. Of course the hubris to posit that one could translate everything if given infinitie time has a higher survivor bias if they are trying to prove that at least they themselves are able to. Add to this I don't understand why you don't understand this to make it the Byzantine Generals Paradox.
    – vectory
    Feb 6 at 16:48
  • [PS:] Or in other words, the question needs to display a minimum of preliminary research, not only "there is a variety of theories ...". I understand this generality as an attempt to be unoppinionated, but it results in a series of comments upto the length of an essay and, respectively, a survey.
    – vectory
    Feb 6 at 17:01

2 Answers 2


You could look at this book, or this handout, which will give you some references. From a linguistic perspective, translation is both extremely complex and extremely simple. I think that there does exist "out there" a notion is that there is an abstract language-independent mental state connected to any language utterance ("the meaning"), and that to translate from English to Logoori, we just have to figure out the rules for getting from actual utterances of Logoori to that Platonic inner form, then from that inner form to its "equivalent" in English. Success would be defined as the case we can reliably devise a system that faithfully identifies those real-word states of affairs associated with utterances in the minds of English speakers and Logoori systems.

A first step would be to somehow identify those mental states of speakers of only one language – what mental state arises when a Logoori speaker says maa ryaanga rinwiihizi amavaru? A very crude translation into English would be "The aardvark will make the ants drink". However, there are nearly a dozen future forms in this language, defined by subtle nuances (e.g. whether the event is expected to happen immediately, vs. in 2-3 days, or some further time on the future). Not only do speakers not agree with each other as to the time boundaries of this particular tense, they don't consistently agree with themselves, that is, the mental state that arises is not trivially replicable given just re-presentation of the linguistic form. It is also highly influenced by whatever real-world facts are most prominent in the speaker's mind at the moment that they receive and interpret the utterance. It is possible, however, to devise a general rule that is relatively simple which does describe a decent percentage of the mental states of speakers of the language (as a statistical abstraction) when they use this verb form – it will happen about 2-3 days in the future, as you push the margins to 3.5 or 4 days there is a decrease in speaker agreement.

The nouns ryaanga 'aardvark' and amavaru 'ants' cause highly variable mental states across speakers. I suspect that 'aardvark' creates similar variable mental states among US English speakers, since we never encounter aardvarks in the wild and most people may not now know that "A is for aadvark", or remember what one looks like from 1st grade. Some words are sufficiently obscure that the referent is not well known. The word amavaru refers to a a specific class of ants – there are dozens of ant names in the language, and most people have only a loose understanding of exactly which ants that refers to. The best guess is that it refers to ants of the genus Dorylus.

In light of these considerations, an attempt to capture a precise mental state of all speakers of a language is hopeless, but there is hope if one accepts the goal as being devising a mapping that "best" identifies the mental states of most speakers in most circumstances. That means "2-3 days future", "wild animal that eats ants" and "black big-headed ant in huge armies".

One might then translate the sentence into English as "The wild animal that eats ants will, within about 2-3 days, cause the black big-headed ants in huge armies to drink" (there are some subtle nuances about "cause to drink" that we can gloss over). The translation so produced is really terrible – nobody would ever say that (leaving aside the situational strangeness of the sentence). In translating between Logoori and English, one will have to lose additional information, perhaps calling the ants "army ants" (but we don't have army ants, and in an attempt to devise the best actual mental state of the most English speakers, we need to just translate the inset name to "ants"), and ignoring the nuances of the various future forms. We can however gain some increase in accuracy of identification by using the word 'aardvark' (if indeed people have a mental referent for aardvark).

The main linguistic question starts with asking what it means to "translate". Linguistic does not dictate word meaning, so we cannot tell you what it means to "translate", but if you have a theory of what it means to "translate", then linguistics might offer analytic insights. Linguists do not agree on the status of the supposed invariant "inner language of thought" – some people believe, some disbelieve.

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    Sorry, after many years in the translation saddle, I have never heard: "A first step would be to somehow identify those mental states of speakers of only one language". Translation (written text) involves working with a given text, not sussing out mental states, which is pretty impossible anyway, without some kind of questionnaire. Also, technically, what you describe in interpreting and not translating...
    – Lambie
    Jan 31 at 17:30
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    Thank you for the references. It is curious how hard it is to find more recent references on this topic. Catford’s book goes back to 1965. But since that time theories of meaning have noticeably developed.
    – Sasan
    Feb 1 at 17:47

I think these are quite reputable and up to date resources on the topic.

From the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a philosophical treatment of translation: https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/radical-translation-and-radical-interpretation/v-1

An Oxford Handbook on translation, covering a wide range of aspects of the whole topic: https://academic.oup.com/edited-volume/34526

Section II, chapters 6 and 8 are about “translation and meaning”, and the question of to what extent aspects of translation have any “universality”.

This is just an interesting list/dictionary of some words people have found difficult to be translated, with an analysis of them: https://www.oxfordreference.com/display/10.1093/acref/9780190681166.001.0001/acref-9780190681166;jsessionid=C7E47DFE85B748BB998964041C07C26D

This is just about theories of meaning, but after you’ve read some of the above, maybe it can still give you some ideas to use in your thinking: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/meaning/

And this is about literary translation but doesn’t appear that engaged with philosophical semantics, but I’m not sure: https://oxfordre.com/literature/display/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.001.0001/acrefore-9780190201098-e-1107;jsessionid=A41F54B30BA5C9D46459E0F0571F4D82

In general, I try to find good reference content by having a short mental list of what I consider the most definitive reference works in a field and just searching them. For me that’s the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, any Oxford Handbook, Oxford Reference, Oxford Research Encyclopedias, and often usually a handbook from Routledge or Wiley-Blackwell as well; and the Elsevier Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, and the International Encyclopedia of Linguistics. These references are so authoritative, scrupulously scholarly, definitive, complete, summary, dense, and accurate that it greatly simplifies the research process. Unless it is my ignorance speaking here, I would not do much more than check these works, except peruse Google Scholar for some more recent research or review articles, or emailing a few professors, because if it’s not in there, there is unlikely to be a seriously good reference work on the topic anywhere else. There may certainly be one, it just isn’t that likely to be very good. If that is the case, I believe you should not research any longer and work on developing your own theory, sharing your thoughts in an online publication, to establish any basis or precepts for a topic in knowledge which isn’t sufficiently worked on. Interacting in online forums about questions, thoughts, speculations, or possible hypotheses you have can be just as or sometimes more fruitful than seeking ideas from somebody else. You can avoid a lot of informational fluff and dig your heels in deeply into a inherent theoretical or logical conviction you have, which serves you way, way more than summarizing weakly diluted thought from a bunch of different contexts.

Here is section “t” in the index of the International Encyclopedia of Linguistics: https://www.oxfordreference.com/display/10.1093/acref/9780195139778.001.0001/acref-9780195139778?btog=chap&hide=true&page=54&pageSize=20&skipEditions=true&sort=titlesort&source=%2F10.1093%2Facref%2F9780195139778.001.0001%2Facref-9780195139778

And the Elsevier appears to be rich with content on the topic: https://www.sciencedirect.com/search?qs=Translation&pub=Encyclopedia%20of%20Language%20%26%20Linguistics%20%28Second%20Edition%29&cid=273528


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