top of page

Do emotions get lost in translation?

Do emotions get lost in translation?

The short answer is yes!

Table of contents

Do emotions get lost in translation?

Research has shown that the true meanings of words can indeed get lost in translation. The various cultures across the world have diverse interpretations of emotional concepts. This means that even when there appears to be an equivalent word in another language, the speakers of that language may respond to it in a very different way.

Even the word love can be problematic. Love is strongly linked to the feelings of liking and wanting in Indo-European languages. But in Austronesian languages including Javanese, the concept of love is associated with pity.

Language is the product of experience

A study conducted at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill involved the analysis of 24 emotional concepts and how they are expressed in 2,472 languages. The research demonstrated that there may be no universal concepts of emotion. Both the way that people make sense of their experiences and the way they express their responses to those experiences will vary. For instance, the concepts of fear and surprise are closely linked in some languages and can sometimes be expressed by the same word. But these concepts are unrelated in many other languages.

Do emotions get lost in translation?

The study did find that emotional concepts in all languages are generally grouped together according to whether they are positive or negative, passive or aggressive. It is the precise understanding of the emotional concepts and the way they are expressed that varies. The closer people are geographically, the more similar their understanding of emotional concepts tends to be. This suggests that the interpretation of emotions is based on a community’s history and experience. Our understanding of emotional concepts could be related to the life experience of our ancestors.

Emotional challenges for translators

As emotions can be experienced, understood and expressed very differently, translators clearly face serious challenges when tackling the language of emotion. If there is a word for an emotional concept such as fear in both the source and the target language, that word could inspire totally different feelings in the native speakers. Dictionaries can certainly lead to false notions of equivalence. Machine translation software cannot interpret the nuances of the emotions associated with words.

There may be several words in a particular language for an emotional concept with each word boasting a slightly different sense. The difference between the senses of a word can be incredibly nuanced but the smallest variance in the meaning could make all the difference to the reader’s emotional response. If someone is described as feeling “angry”, are they merely “angry” or are they “livid”, “incandescent” or “irate”?

Translating a word associated with emotion becomes even more difficult when there is no equivalent word in the target language. There is no word for “vulnerable” in Polish. There is no English equivalent for the Portuguese word “desbundar” which refers to the concept of shedding your inhibitions when having fun.

Do emotions get lost in translation?

Words that express emotional concepts often refer to very specific feelings or experiences. This makes them extremely challenging to translate, especially in situations where the length of the completed translation is important. If there is no direct equivalent for a word, it may only be possible to accurately express the concept by using many more words. There is no English equivalent for the Inuit word “iktsuarpok”. The term refers to the eager anticipation you feel when waiting for someone to arrive. A feeling that causes you to keep checking outside to see if that person is there. This explanation is accurate but could be too lengthy in situations where there is limited space for the text. You couldn’t fit such a lengthy translation into a speech bubble!

Words improve our understanding of how we feel

Discovering words in other languages that have no direct equivalents in our own can help us to better understand our emotions and our responses to specific situations. Such words draw our attention to feelings that we may not have noticed are a little different to those we experience in other situations. When you come to think about it, the emotions you feel when eagerly waiting for someone are unique and do inspire unique behaviour. Words from other languages alert us to sensations that we may have previously ignored.

Sometimes words from other languages that express commonly felt emotions feel so apposite that we borrow them. In the absence of an appropriate equivalent, English speakers have pinched “schadenfreude” from German. It’s much quicker to say “schadenfreude” than it is to say, “pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune”.

Do emotions get lost in translation?

There are many untranslatable words for emotions that could help speakers of any language to better understand their own experiences and to distinguish between them more accurately.  The Japanese word “natsukashi” refers to a nostalgic longing for a past time while feeling happy to recall the fond memory but sad that this special time has passed. It’s incredible how having a word for that feeling enables you to see what it describes as a very specific experience.

Studies have demonstrated that the better we are able to distinguish between the senses of what may be considered synonyms, the better we are able to cope with life. The ability to precisely label an emotional response impacts our capacity to deal with that response. If we can identify a specific problem, it is easier to find a solution.

Finding the right words

Translators are often faced with working on source material that has been created with the aim of inspiring emotional responses. This could be marketing material, movie dialogue or impassioned magazine articles.

The language of emotion is complex and nuanced. Choosing the right words is very difficult and precisely the right words may not exist in the target language. Translators must articulate experiences and emotions that they may not have previously recognised or acknowledged as being unique. Conversely, they need to translate words for unique emotions when the target culture does not make distinctions between these and other similar experiences.

The language of emotion is the result of historical and cultural experience. Translators must possess a deep understanding of both language and culture to choose the right words.

Do emotions get lost in translation?

#languageandcontext #languagefocus

James Myatt

4 min read

May 30, 2022



bottom of page