Three language lessons you can learn from the word "schlemiel"

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?

Among the toughest words to translate, and there are some doozies, schlemiel is a top contender. It is a Yiddish word for a chronically unlucky person.

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.

(Curious to learn some of the toughest words to convey in English, like prozvonit and hyggelig? Check out our list, here.)

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.