What is untranslatability? It refers to a term where it becomes impossible to convey the meaning as it requires to be conveyed, where the ‘sense’ of a particular sentence or document cannot be expressed in target language. This situation is rare but it can happen. Let us see what are the factors that can cause untranslatability.
It can happen where intercultural equivalence is lacking, and you are liable to provide unmatched translation services. A particular fact or word or anything that is a part and parcel of source language may not even exist in target language which makes it impossible to express that particular word or event in target language (It is in fact a test of professionalism, of translator working for professional translation agency). For example life patterns of source language can be completely different when compared with life patterns of target language.
For example, for the English word “spouse” there is no proper word in Urdu. Similarly, “Shawarma” is an Arabic cuisine which cannot be translated into any other language as nothing like “Shawarma” exists in any other culture. Similarly, tayammum refers to the use of sand for ablution when water is unavailable. Now, you can’t just “translate” it. You can describe it, explain it, elaborate it, but you can’t translate as nothing like tayammum exists in any other culture.
Untranslatability also occurs when there is emotiveness in the document. There are some emotions which are culturally specific and are not familiar to other cultures. There is a strong linguistic history behind every emotive word or phrase which the culture of target language could completely lack.
Again take the example of word tayammum, for Muslims it is a way of ablution with sand if there is no water available to offer their prayers. Now even if a translator describes what does it mean even then non-muslims can’t take it as Muslims do. For Muslims it is just a sacred procedure for getting cleanliness but it’s description and explanation in English would feel odd and less emotive, in fact weird to the readers belonging to other cultures.
In these cases, it all depends on translator. It is his skill, experience, diligence and talent that can dilute the cultural, linguistic or emotive difference while translating from source language to target language. Obviously he cannot invent a word or word that can be connotative in the case but his choice of words and style of explanation can make a difference. So again it is ‘translator’ on whom the burden falls.