11. One of the Most Difficult Words to Translate in Any Language

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MARCH 18, 2022: Cultural and contextual differences matter a great deal in literary translation because they can change the meaning of the text entirely.

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Dear Reader,

If you’re a translator, you already know what this difficult word is, don’t you? Hint: you use it so often that you probably don’t even register this as a difficulty. In fact, I’ve just used this particular word five times already in the first two sentences here.

Yep. “You”. Don’t believe me? Watch the brief TED-Ed video further below.

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Growing up in India, I often thought of this as one of the most weird aspects of the English language: only one word for “you” while, in most Indian languages, we have several versions, depending on whether we’re addressing an older or younger person, a woman or a man, singular or plural.

Of course, such cultural and contextual differences matter a great deal in literary translation because they can change the meaning of the text entirely. And that’s why we say that a language contains entire ways of being within it. That’s why, when a language is displaced, falls into disuse, or lost, we also lose some of those ways of being and moving through the world.

The “you” that we use today has evolved from its Proto-Germanic origins through the centuries And there are still plural variations of “you” in different parts of the world: y’all, youse, you-all, you guys, allyuh, and more. No reason why it shouldn’t evolve further, right?

Here are some interesting links:

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Check Out The Most Difficult Words to Translate (Clear Words Translations)

Is this the most powerful word in the English language? by Helen Schumacher (BBC Culture)

How new words are born by Andy Bodle (The Guardian)

Announcing the ALTA45 Theme and Conference Format (year-round virtual programming)

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Oxford Anthology of Translation: Call for Submissions (deadline: March 23, 2022)

So, over to you. What’s your favorite form of “you” in a non-English language and why? Please let me know via the social media links or in reply to this newsletter.

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Until the next newsletter.

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Jenny Bhatt

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