In honor of National Poetry Month, let’s tackle some of the trickiest aspects of meaning — after all, poetry is one of the great ways to express subtle and slippery thoughts. Our focus today is translation. How can someone convey the meaning of a word that has no equivalent in another language?
The trouble behind “schlemiel” presents us with a common translation problem – the translator will inherently run into words in one language that may not have an equivalent word in the other language. Just like in the case of “schlemiel,” a full description of the word, one sentence or clause, can help convey the meaning behind it, but if the translation is a poem or an essay, such an explanation would not fit into the style of the work being translated.
Here are three tools that the skilled translator keeps at hand when faced with an untranslatable word.
When confronted with a lacuna (a gap in a piece of writing), a translator may resort to free translation or adaptation. Adaptation requires replacing the literal meaning of the original text with something that holds equivalent cultural weight in the target language. Adaptation is fairly typical between languages that are extremely different, such as Chinese and English. For our example above, schlemiel’s unlucky characteristic could be translated as easily duped, therefore “stooge” might be a choice.
A calque is used in translation when, barring the existence of a usable word, the original language’s word is deconstructed and translated by basic element. An example would be the German halbinsel for English “peninsula.” This is also called “word for word” translation.
As a last resort, a translator can borrow the untranslatable word into the target language text. When this is done in English, the word is usually presented in italics. An untranslatable word that appears often might become a loan word in the target language. Examples of borrowing are the now widely recognized qi, Chinese for air and energy, and déjà vu, a French word for the overwhelming feeling that in English we have no equivalent for.
Schlemiel has been borrowed into English often enough to qualify as a loan word. Since our tongues do not have a native word to encompass the chronically unlucky nature of such a character, we have adopted the Yiddish.
First comment! Wow!
Nine letters seems like a bit much to be borrowed, maybe it could be translated to “cursed”?
(while we’re here, “irony” is being used wrong. Everybody, please make/use a new word for what people mean when they misuse “irony”. The current misuse is “cruel coincidence” or “cruel Fate”)
Schlemiel is perfectly well translates as a loser.
Can’t it be translated to the word “damned”?
Does “deja vu” really count as one word? Literally translated, it means “already seen,” so actually, we do have an English equivalent, not?
Schlemiel – shlumiel in Hebrew (pronounced sh-loo-mi-el) refers to a clumsy, unlucky fellow. In modern Hebrew the misfortune part is less prominent, and it is usually used to describe a clumsy two-left-hands kind of guy (I’m not sure about the exact semantic hues in Yiddish).
A related word is shlimazel, which means something like an unfortunate fellow.
There’s an old folk epigram which describes the difference between these two (freely translated):
The shlumiel is the waiter who spills the boiling soup bowl, the shlimazel is the one whom the soup is spilled on.
peninsula means almost an isle…
‘Loser’ as a translation isn’t quite right either – it’s usually a person’s own fault that they’re a loser, but it seems a schemiel may not have any choice in the matter.
i agree with Temur Federmesser, with the minor exception that it means an awkward and unlucky person, if you want it in a single word, look up the definition then look at the synonyms
This isn’t just a problem with “literary” translations, either. Translators come up against problems like this in technical documentation (like user manuals for products, online content, software GUI, etc.) as well.
This is one of the reasons that translators absolutely can’t STAND it when someone who is remotely bilingual, or who is learning a language, says something to the effect of, “Meh, just give me a bilingual dictionary and I could be a translator too.” It’s simply not possible.
There is never a one-to-one correspondence between languages, and word-for-word translation generally results in a text that is completely unreadable, unnatural, and sometimes nonsensical. That’s why the translation industry has coined the word “transcreation,” because a lot of times (especially with more creative content), the process of translation really is a creative re-creation of text in another language.
So next time you buy a product that was produced in another country, or that is from a company that has headquarters overseas, you should stop for a moment and appreciate all behind-the-scenes work that went into making that product available in your own language, because the process can be pretty damn messy.
The German word for a chronically unlucky person is Pechvogel, so you could calque it into pitchbird. Therefore, the English word for schlemiehl is pitchbird. Not tough to translate at all.
Guys — a schlemazel is chronically unlucky, a schlemiel is a klutz. You’ve gotta keep you soup-spillers and soup-spilled-on-ers straight.
I might think of that word as the grossest word added to the english language,and it got my tongue twisted..=X
Wow Francis :p. I admit I think it’s cool to be he frist comment too.
Ha! “stooge” I call my brother that a lot. :p
you buy a product that was produced in another country, or that is from a company that has headquarters overseas, you should stop for a moment and appreciate all behind-the-scenes work that went into making that product available in your own langu
I recently used a search-engine’s translation service in an attempt to read a blog that was written in arabic. The result looked like a hurricane had swept past the page, followed by somebody putting all the punctuation back – amusing to read at times, but as meaningful as alphabet soup.
I think ‘Schadenfreude’ is another example of a word borrowed into English because we didn’t have an equivalent:
To avg: And the nudnik asks, what kind of soup?
Spanish has a direct equivalent for Schlemiel; “gafe”. I believe that the French use “gaffe” to express the same idea, although it’s a verb, not a noun. Since English seems to like calcs from French so much, calling somebody a gaffe does not look like a bad option.
A similar term is pé frio (noun), literally “cold foot” in Portuguese: a person who brings bad luck with him/her wherever (s)he goes.
hey guys, the main thing is that we get our ideas across, don’t you think? so let’s stop ’splitting hairs’, okay?
i guess there are still words that are hard to translate. ill try using translation apps and check if they can translate it…
Made me think of Laverne and Shirley … Yep, I’m giving away my generation, at least. I had no idea schlemiel and schlemazel were real words … always thought L&S had made them up! Yep, giving away my lack of education on the matter too! Oh well …
Don’t Laverne & Shirley sing about “schlemiel, schlimozel, etc” in the opening of their old tv show? I always wondered what they were singing about. Being way down in south Louisiana those words are Greek to me. (Ok, in this case Yiddish or Hebrew!)
so…the beginning of the little ditty from Laverne and Shirley, translated, is…
“Awkward, klutzy, clumsy person; chronically unlucky fellow;
Rabbit stew combined into one unified substance”???
(Schlemiel, schlemazel; hassenpfeffer, incorporated…)
Where’s my hasenpfeffer???????????
Pity the poor translator who was stuck with the job of transmuting Dave Barry’s essays into Russian. What is the Russian equivalent of “whoopie cushion”?
The comic strip, Li’l Abner used to have a fellow named Joe, who’s last name was a string of consonants that made the name unpronounceable.
I forget what the letters were. He wore rumpled black clothing and hat and walked around perpetually under a rain cloud. Sort of like our schlemiel.
To my knowledge, there is no word in English that means two persons with the same first name. In Spanish, the word is “tocayo.”
Another example is the Yiddish: Hutzpah or Chutzpah. It is very difficult to translate the full flavor into English. Dictionary.com gives us “unmitigated gall”.
One comedian said Hutzpah is when a son kills his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.
Neither “damned” nor “cursed” would be an accurate translation because both “damned” and “cursed” are adjectives. The word schlemiel is actually a noun because it’s a person.
respect to DR for the response to AVG!
This is my first comment EVER on this site. Whoa,Nelly. (:
Included in his translation of the book ‘Noli Me Tangere’ by Jose Rizal the translator: Harold Augenbaum provides a valueable reference glossary of words used in the original text.
“Already seen” would not be an accurate translation for deja vu. “Already seen” sounds like a common place occurance, something you would say if someone asked if you wanted to see a movie. I would not associate it with the odd, almost something wrong sensation of deja vu.
“. . . a French word for the overwhelming feeling that in English we have no equivalent for.” – As a reader, this phrase struck me as awkward. Please rearrange it to “a French word for the overwhelming feeling for which we have no equivalent in English.”
We do not have an English equivalent because “already seen” does not have any meaning unless we give it one. But no one ever gave it one. So it simply means what it sounds like, not the deja vu sensation at all.
@Paul B :
Audacity. I think that’s a pretty accurate translation.
Kimster: It was Joe BFTSPLK, and was supposed to be pronounced as a raspberry noise..
Dictionary dot com’s getting real
Searching for a new word for Schlemiel
Until some schlimazel
With fire-hose nozzle
Drowns out the entire luckless spiel
Might I ask why the first person to comment always needs to specify as such? We can all see the order in which the people commented.
“Schlemiel, schlemazel; hassenpfeffer, incorporated” lavern and shirley were both the schlemeil and the schlemazel all mixed together… that was the point of the show. It was very NYC like that.
“…doing it our way.”
…”We’re gonna make our dreams come true…”
Go again conventional advice. etc.
go against conventional advice of the time. Step out and take risks.
@Wrasfish: Its russian; I’m sure that there is one. I just sad I don’t know it.
Mary Jo @:
too many people share my name.
I friend them On facebook to confuse my friends for the fun of it.
Now some of them are really my longdistance friends via fb. I think one is in the same cidade. I’lll have to invite that cat out for a beer, or a non alcoholic related game of pool.
now that i think of it, a schlemiel is an unlucky klutz.
I’m certain that you could compile quite a massive list of words that other languages have but English doesn’t. Of course, the same probably goes for all other languages, too. There’s simply no way to have a word for everything.
To Domino the word for Tocayo is NameSake a person having the same name as another used the translation on this site from Spanish to English and that is what it gave me..
That’s awesome!! I am so gonna start calling people schlemiel when they do something stupid/unlucky.
Yeah, I’d have to agree. “Damned” or “cursed” don’t work at all since they’re adjectives and we’re definitely searching for a noun.
Also, “loser” is an overly simplified translation, and is unfair to the person it is describing. If you are naturally clumsy or have perpetually bad luck, why add to your woes by also classifying yourself as a loser?
-Jessy from Indy
Somebody should create a single word to define what is parallel synchronized randomness
I did not read the other responses, but maybe I did not understand the use of the German word halbinsel in regard to Peninsula. Halbinsel means basically “half island,” which is what a Peninsula in a sense is. Only one part is touching land.
parallel synchronized randomness… like when two people or lines are parallel, next to each other, and are randomly going all over the place but do it synchronized? The people move their elbows the same way at the same time in a direction no one could have predicted, or a line takes a sudden turn at the same time as another takes a sudden random turn in the same direction?
hm. If this is what you mean…interesting.
And if you just threw a bunch of random adjectives together and I made sense of them…I see what my friends mean….
Misael is a girl.
Lulz, the English-based internet slang, is close enough to Schadenfreude in function to act as an equivalent.
It may seem far-fetched now, but internet abbreviations, acronyms, and neologisms, have a fair chance of becoming a part of the vernacular, and eventually the English dictionary.
forget this guy above me he is totally and fully wrong and is opinion COMPLETELY DOESN’T MATTER
To OLH 064 used WRONGLY!!!!
I am English the adverb is WRONGLY
I am almost 100% sure I am a schlemiel because I usually get many worst case scenarios
GOD BLESS all the schlemiels of the world
I find all your comments interesting and some amusing. I am a first timer to this site and it is obvious that I can write my next essay completely on the bases of this sites commentary. I think it will read as a comedy.