The Enigma of Everyday Speech: Why some casual language might be nearly impossible to translate

Eden Amsellem, Anaïs Clancy, Emily MacDonald, Jennifer Padilla Villegas, Summer Xia

Communication in casual contexts appears to be less directly translatable between languages than communication in formal contexts. Several of our group members are bilingual and have experienced difficulties when translating between the different languages they speak. Based on their personal experiences, we wanted to determine whether language in casual or formal contexts tended to be more untranslatable. To do this, we analyzed texts that had been translated between English and French, Spanish, or Mandarin. Our bilingual group members searched each text for instances where the translation was noticeably inconsistent with the original meaning. These inconsistencies came from a variety of language aspects including tone, connotations, idioms, and slang. The translators recorded these inconsistencies as our data. From that data, we found that the casual texts had more instances of untranslatability than the formal texts. We discuss why this might be and why the greater degree of untranslatability in casual language might suggest it carries more cultural meaning.

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