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8 Translators Tell Us Their Favourite Words

Posted 29th Sep 2017

Happy International Translation Day, all! To celebrate, here are eight of our brilliant translators on their favourite words. Read on for these delightful words in languages from English to Polish and many in between.

Sophie Hughes, literary translator of The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, by Iván Repila, and also Rodrigo Hásbun’s Affections.

Problems are the pleasure of translation, so unsurprisingly my favourites are the stubborn, hermetically sealed words that resist both intra- or inter-lingual translation. Possibly the worst (or best) recent example was Los afectos, the Spanish title for Affections. After going all around the houses, we ended up with a starkly literal translation in the plural, which in another instance might be a mistranslation, but in this case was purposeful. Affection risked coming across as more abstract, weighty and philosophical than Hasbún intended with his original title. Affections, on the other hand, describes what the book is about: the plurality of affections and disaffections that exist within one family.


David Colmer. David is the translator behind our charming edition of Annie M. G. Schmidt’s Tow-Truck Pluck

If I try to think of a nice word that people might not necessarily know, then “belum” is a good one. It’s Indonesian and it just means “not yet”, but it’s a very optimistic word because in Indonesian there are all kinds of questions that you should never answer with just “no”, as it suggests an acceptance of that negative state. So, for instance, if you asked me if Annie Schmidt’s “Jip and Janneke” has been published in the UK, the only polite thing for me to say would be “belum”.

Bryan Karetnyk, translator of our new Pushkin Collection edition of Gaito Gazdanov’s The Flight

  I’m going to be slightly controversial and opt for sonder, but specifically in the sense coined by John Koenig in his project The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: ‘n. the realization that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own’. I think that sonder, together with another of Koenig’s words, onism—‘the awareness of how little of the world you’ll experience’—captures perfectly why human conscious has such an innate craving for literature: it’s through literature that we can, at least temporarily, escape these ‘obscure sorrows’.


Professor Anthony Briggs, the translator of our new edition of Alexander Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin

Favourite word: ‘perpendicularly’, the longest word in King Lear. It comes when Edgar describes to his blinded father how far he has fallen from the cliff:

                          Ten masts at each make not the altitude

                           That thou hast perpendicularly fell.

If I were directing this play I would get the actor to say this word slowly, in descending tones, marking out all the six stages by which Gloster is supposed to have fallen:  ‘per… pen… dic …u… lar … ly’.  A masterpiece of poetic writing, and a stark contrast to ‘No, this is not the worst, So long as you can say – this is the worst …’, all biting, staccato monosyllables.


Laura Watkinson, the wordsmith behind our English translation of Tonke Dragt’s bestselling Dutch children’s phenomenon The Letter for the King

Right now that’d be “chard”. I was recently introduced to the Monty Python sketch about woody words and tinny words. There’s a definite difference. “Chard”, like “gorn”, is a perfectly woody word. Chard. Chard. Chard.


David Burnett, translator behind the brilliant The Last Bell by Johannes Urzidil

In Polish it’s got to be wihajster (English: thingamabob or whatchamacallit), a phonetic rendering of the German phrase “wie heisst er” or “what’s he called.” Yes, two-thirds of present-day Poland was once occupied by the Prussians and/or the Austrians. Incidentally, the Germans don’t have the word Wieheisster or Wieheisstes. They say Dingsbums.


Annie Prime, translator of our brilliant YA title Maresi,
The Swedish prefix ur denotes several seemingly disparate qualities. It can mean ‘ancient’, ‘primal’, as in urväsen (primeval creature) and ‘basic’, ‘unspoiled’, as in urskog (virgin woods). There is a sense of origin, source, creation and ancestry, as in urfader (ancestor), as well as ‘out of’ or ‘away from’, such as ursinne (frenzy, lit: out of one’s mind). In this way it denotes coming from something both in terms of being created by it and breaking away from it. It is also a colloquial term for ‘very’, ‘extremely’.


Will Stone, writer, poet and translator of many Pushkin books, including Messages from a Lost World
Carillon – I like its sound, it suits the bells it names and their restful tinkling that floats on the air ‘like ash’ as the poet Georges Rodenbach would have it.


Want more from our translators? Get 10% off selected books in translation with the code TRANSLATIONDAY on the Pushkin Shop >