The winners of the Exploring the Boundaries of Translation contest!

We would like to thank everyone who participated in this contest. We received many excellent submissions from a wide array of languages that demonstrated an extraordinary breadth of linguistic knowledge and sensitivity to cultural (mis)understandings. Most impressive of all was the awareness of language as symbolic form and power: how meaning is made through language and how power operates through language. 

Congratulations to the finalists! For each, please click on their names to read the entire submission.

1st place  

First place was a three-way tie between:

2nd place 

3rd place 

Honorable Mention 

Special recognition goes to the following (listed in alphabetical order):

  • Selene Arriaga: morena bendita (Spanish)
  • Jorge Rosas: desvelar (Spanish)
  • Veronica Yoo: “Hahn” (한) (Korean)
  • Kathryn Zaloom: la gueule (French) 
  • Elicia Ye: 辛苦了 (Mandarin)

With gratitude

We would like to extend a warm thank you to the following members of the review committee:

  • Michael Christopher Arrigo, French Instructor
  • Nikolaus Euba, German Instructor
  • Nathalie Khankan, Arabic Instructor
  • Vesna Rodic, French instructor
  • Victoria K. Williams, polyglot extraordinaire and BLC classroom supervisor
  • Kimberly Vinall, Executive Director of the Berkeley Language Center

Finally, many thanks to the Found in Translation (FIT) working group for sponsoring this contest. 

We look forward to next year’s submissions!

Meixi (Diane) Chen

        There is a word in the contemporary Chinese society, called “大妈”(dama). Even though its literal meaning is “big mother”, which might sound quite intimate, the fact is that the word is never used to address someone who has a close relationship with the speaker. “Dama” is not just the name of a particular group of people, but also a concept and phenomenon in the contemporary Chinese-speaking societies that it is used in. Often translated as “middle-aged woman” in English, the word not only implies one’s age and gender, but also one’s appearance, educational and socio-economic backgrounds. People who are called “dama” are usually labeled as women who are “not young”, have “unfavorable” appearances, wear “out-of-fashion” clothing, come from lower social class, talk in “poorly educated” languages, and have “unpleasant” manners. This word and the concept behind it have really been concerning me because of the intersectionality of malice that they imply. First towards women’s ages and appearances – younger women with “favorable” appearances are never called “dama” even if they talk and behave in a “poor” way; then towards women’s educational and socio-economic backgrounds – women from higher social classes aren’t called “dama” either, even if they’re middle-aged; and also towards gender – there isn’t a word to describe men who are labeled in the same hurtful ways above. Sadly, when it comes to “dama”, there is always an intersectionality consisting of malice towards gender, age, appearance, educational and socio-economic backgrounds, even though such languages and concepts are unnecessarily hurtful and offensive. By calling someone “dama” in language, the society is putting boundaries on women in action. Indeed, the word was only created during the last decade, with histories of use in describing women who “made people feel unpleasant”. It is an untranslatable word because of the concept and social issue that it brings into the society, which make it a “language assault”, as I call it, while the most used English translation “middle-aged woman” only suggests a person’s age and gender. This word has really helped me think about the power that language holds, as well as the relationship between language and gender. I can’t help imagining, if one day, the intersectionality of malice towards particular groups of women, can be reduced or even removed, when people simply stop using this one single word…

Gianfranco Gastelo

        If known, the history of the Filipino word torpe might have likely originated from the cultural collision between Spanish conquistadors and native Filipinos during the Middle Ages. In Spanish, torpe specifically used to refer (as it currently continues so) to one’s inability to hold something physically without damaging it; in this sense, clumsy would be its closest equivalent in English. However, by (inter)generational oral transmission transfiguring its original reference, Filipinos might have accidentally stretched the term’s applicability: from a subject-object relationship to a subject-subject one. In the words of the Peruvian linguist Dr. Martha Luz Hildebrandt, a member from the Real Spanish Academy, “dictionary definitions do not govern meanings in words but their uses in society”, standardizing new adaptations, as in the case of torpe. Torpe in Filipino, as it must have evolved diachronically, refers to a succession of failed attempts when manifesting one’s love to another romantically. A person may not be inherently torpe, in its Filipino sense, but becomes one momentarily when converting emotions into actions toward a special person, producing an undesired outcome for both. Torpe, despite the brevity of its two syllables tor-pe, expands the duration of its pronunciation through the roughness of the Spanish-borrowed r, and by implication, emphasizes its negative designation. Although one might have been overthinking how to achieve the other’s affection by predicting a sequence of causes and effects, the person may be viewed as torpe when everything planned collapses as a result of behaving self-consciously, experiencing cognitive dissonance or state of stupefaction, or combinations of these. Since the loved person is usually ignorant of the other’s silent interplay between well-intended actions and conflictive thoughts, torpe, unfortunately, by virtue of its focus on results rather than unseen causes, omits visibility of one’s efforts and investment into the other. Since no single word in English reflects these phonic or semantic complexities encapsulated in a short, yet destructive, word produced by one’s admiration for the other, phrases of its multifaceted meanings must be used alternatively, as those already described. I believe that every person has either experienced or observed another being torpe, thus, due to its universal appeal in human beings, I, as a humanities student, decided to reflect upon its linguistic features in its original and untranslatable versions.

Jinge Li

        The word I have chosen to be untranslatable is 鸳鸯, yuan yang. 鸳鸯 is a kind of bird originally found in China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia. Unfortunately, the species isn’t found in the Western part of the world, and therefore its English name is Mandarin Duck, signifying the similarities 鸳鸯 has to ducks and its origin.

        I came across the translation of 鸳鸯 in Hawkes’ English translation of A Dream in the Red Chamber. 鸳鸯 was a maid’s name, and Hawkes translated her name as Faithful. I was a little confused with Faithful’s name in English because I thought Yuanyang, the bird’s name, would be a better translation. After more research into the bird Yuanyang, I realized the English name for Yuanyang does not contain the romantic incantation as the Chinese appellation. I understood why the translator chose the hidden meaning of Yuanyang’s name and named her Faithful. In Chinese, the mandarin ducks symbolize the best of romantic relationships. They are known to be traveling in pairs and mate for life. When the two people share a great love and can only be separated by death, they are called 鸳鸯. A colloquialism that is derived from 長安古意 “chang an gu yi” says “只羡鸳鸯不羡仙,” meaning only envious of the mandarin ducks and not gods. The original poem is by 卢照邻,luzhaoling, who says, “得成比目何辞死,愿作鸳鸯不羡仙。比目鸳鸯真可羡,双去双来君不见.” Meaning, “As long as I can stay with the person I love, I am willing to die; as long as I can stay with the person I love, I am willing to be a pair of birds instead of being a lonely god.” Translating the name “Yuanyang” into “Faithful” is to juice the essence of the Chinese poets’ adoration for mandarin ducks that have enriched Chinese culture’s poetics. Faithful is the perfect name for Yuanyang, the maid whose pursuit of true love brings the spirits of 鸳鸯 to life. However, translating the hidden meaning of a name is a compromise made by the translator, which diminishes the beauty of the hidden, shy, and reserved metaphor of Yuanyang that showcases the Chinese’ love for veiled and implicit feelings.

Elena Rollán Martín

        The word I have chosen is “sobremesa”, which comes from Castilian Spanish and literally means “upon the table”. Its real meaning refers to the practice of staying at the table after lunchtime, sometimes for hours, simply talking or just enjoying each other’s company. I do not know its origin, but the original sobremesa was a ritual on itself: after dessert would come coffee, then a small serving of a liqueur (usually cream or herbal), then a cigar for the men. In a holiday or a hot summer day, the whole thing could extend well into dinner time – which is saying something, since lunchtime usually happens around 2pm or 3pm and dinner is around 9pm in Spain. Nowadays, and especially in big cities, sobremesa does not include all these elements, although coffee remains if there is not enough time for a siesta, and restaurants will offer the liqueur in many cases, and almost always on the weekend. 

        Sobremesa means much more than this ritual, however. We might not have the full three-piece tradition anymore, but the practice of lingering, of not rushing through a meal with family or friends as if it were another chore to be checked on a list, does remain in all contexts. I did not realize how much this was so until I came to the States: my biggest cultural shock was seeing that Americans, ever busy, will organize an activity (going to the theater, trying some new boba place) and the interaction will end when the activity ends. For me, this lack of an ingrained, shared understanding that you linger after an activity you are enjoying felt like a rejection – why else would people not stay with me for an extra hour commenting on the movie we just watched?

        The other day I was reading an article in the New York Times trying to argue that it was good that we were moving back to in-person socialization, even if it meant losing the ability to just leave a Zoom meeting with friends and having to waste some time on uncomfortable small talk for a few minutes before leaving a friend reunion. I read that and thought: this is why sobremesa translates to some nonsense like “upon the table” in English.

William Sieving

        δαίμων (daimōn) is a noun which is commonly translated as ‘divinity’ but the subtle shades of meaning are lost with this translation. The word comes from δαἰομαι (daiomai), meaning “to share (out)”, and δάις (dais), meaning “lot/part”. These originate from the Proto-Indo-European root dā- meaning “to divide”. The word is used to describe gods similar to the word θεός (theos), as in Iliad 1.222. When it is used in this context, it is often lesser than θεός, never used to describe Zeus himself. Taking the meaning “lesser divine or semi-divine being” gives the word an additional usage, such as in Matthew 8.31, where the word is used as “evil-spirit” or “demon”. The word also came to possess special philosophical meaning in Plato’s symposium, referring to something which causes interactions between the divine and the mortal. More commonly the word is associated with the divine power which gods possess, such as in Iliad 17.98. 

        Considering its origins, the word can have a more literal meaning, being one’s “lot in life” aka “fate” or “destiny”. Examples of this meaning can be found in Arist.Top. 122a37, Iliad 8.166, as well as describing cities in Xenaphon’s Anabasis (“πόλιν μεγάλην καὶ εὐδαίμονα” a city great and prosperous/lucky” (εὐ “good” + δαίμων “fortune”)).

        The word is also used as an adjective to describe someone. The form δαιμόνιος can be found in speeches within Homer, and it is not always referring to gods. For example, when Hector and Andromache are speaking on the walls of Troy in 6.486, Hector uses δαιμονίη (daimoniē) as a name for Andromache. Along with being perhaps flattering, the most important aspect of this word in this context is the otherworldliness. Hector and Andromache have just finished having a disagreement and thus the otherworldliness of the word δαιμονίη helps to emphasize the disconnect between their viewpoints by framing her as not mortal.

        Considering the varied uses and meanings of this word, from the philosophical contexts to its implications on mortality and the divine, it is impossible to use a single English word or phrase to represent it. I picked this word because it gives insight into how the ancient Greeks viewed the divine’s link with fate as well as how mortals were linked through “destiny” to the divine, and helps me contemplate my own connection with the divine, either fate, the afterlife, or a higher being.