The winners of the Exploring the Boundaries of Translation contest!

We would like to thank everyone who participated in this contest. We received many thoughtful submissions from a wide array of languages that demonstrated an extraordinary breadth of linguistic and historical knowledge and sensitivity to how meaning is made across, through, and in languages. Most impressive of all was how the entries revealed the worlds that are created through words, the social identities that are indexed, and the power structures that are identified and even challenged. 

Congratulations to the winners! For each, please click on their names to read the entire submission. Below you will also find the contest description and prompts.

1st Place
Anna Reck: Waldeinsamkeit (German)

2nd Place
Angeli Lohner: empalagar (Spanish)

3rd Place Tie
Aurelia Widjaja: han (Korean)
DJ Fernandez: hiraya (Tagalog)

With gratitude

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

  • Michael Christopher Arrigo, French Instructor
  • Vesna Rodic, French instructor
  • Emily Hellmich, Associate Director of the Berkeley Language Center (BLC)
  • Will Sieving, former winner of the Exploring the Boundaries of Translation contest
  • Kimberly Vinall, Executive Director of the Berkeley Language Center (BLC)

Finally, many thanks to the generous financial support provided by the Found in Translation (FIT) working group, led by Vesna Rodic and Michel Arrigo, and sponsored by the Berkeley Language Center and the Townsend Center for the Humanities. 

Exploring the Boundaries of Translation 

This contest, organized by the Berkeley Language Center (BLC), encourages UC Berkeley undergraduate students  to critically explore the boundaries of translation and the relativity of cultures. Participants will name an  “untranslatable word” and engage with this boundary by exploring its (un)translatability by humans and  machines. 

Please write a text of 400 words or fewer that responds to the following questions: 

(1) If known, what is the history of the word? 

(2) Recognizing that you have identified the word as untranslatable, how would you best describe the  meaning of the word in English (feel free to also include an image) and in what contexts is the word used? 

(3) Why do you consider this word to be “untranslatable”? Why did you pick this word? (4) Conversations are ongoing in computer science/artificial intelligence about what additional  information machines would need to “know” in order to achieve a more human-level sensibility in  processing languages (e.g., triangulating language with images). What would a machine translation tool  (Google Translate, DeepL, etc.) need to know in order to be able to translate this word? 

Anna Reck

We look forward to next year’s submissions! Please remember that the call goes out in February.

Waldeinsamkeit is the feeling of being alone in the woods. The literal definition comes from its two components: wald is forest, and einsamkeit is solitude (Germans love their compound nouns). One third of Germany’s landscape is forest, including famously the Schwarzwald (Black Forest), so it’s not surprising that this word is so popular. Likewise, the dark woods are a hallmark of arguably the most famous fairy tales in the world (those of the Brothers Grimm). Waldeinsamkeit, in fact, first appeared in writing in a fairy tale from 1797, “Der Blonde Eckbert” (albeit not from the Grimm collection). The word gained more notice in the late 19th century, when the writer Joseph Victor von Scheffel named his collection of poems “Waldeinsamkeit” and described the many different facets of the term (including, strangely enough, how to appreciate a forest fire); Waldeinsamkeit was also used as the name of another poem from the 19th century, this one by Ralph Waldo Emerson. 

While the literal definition may be found from “forest” and “solitude”, I consider this word to be untranslatable because it refers to a feeling. There is no entirely universal emotion that one feels when stepping into a forest alone. It may be peace, fear, joy, or some combination of these and many more; it is interesting to note that within Germany the term seems to be universally positive. 

I chose this word because, for one thing, it fits the structure of what I most consider to be a German word: a combination of nouns to describe a very specific phenomenon, that would probably be considered long to nonnative speakers (there is a reason German frequently appears in lists of the longest words). Of course, the meaning of the term is the main reason I chose it for this prompt. Waldeinsamkeit, on the one hand, cannot be explained simply as “forest solitude” or “woods loneliness”, because either of these terms have very different connotations. However, ask someone what they feel when they go hiking in the middle of a forest and they will in all likelihood have an immediate response, if not one they are able to easily articulate. Especially for Germany, a country as known for its romantic forests as its industry, it is easy to see how the term has stuck around for centuries. 

A machine translation tool would need to know the positive connotation of the word to properly translate it. 

Angeli Lohner

Do you know that the sickening feeling one gets when something consumed is no longer pleasurable or even digestible? Or when someone has a personality that can only be tolerated in small quantities? In Spanish, there is a perfect word to define the emotional and physical state caused by oversaturation– empalagar. During medieval times, Old Spanish adapted the Latin root “Pelagius,” which means sea, to form “piélago,” which meant open waters and figuratively meant anything boundless or immeasurable and overwhelming, thus birthing the word empalagar.

However, empalagar offers a slightly different attitude towards an overwhelming feeling. In the Spanish-speaking world, this word is mainly used in the context of food to define something that doesn’t sit well with your palate, for example, “I don’t like cotton candy because it is overly sweet and me empalaga.” In English, the best translation of this sentence would be, “it makes me sick.” Additionally, empalagar can also be used to distinguish the antipathy produced by someone’s temperament, for example, “He always greets me with an overly emotional reaction which me empalaga.” In this example, the most appropriate translation would be, “it disgusts me.” Nevertheless, both translations fail to illustrate the emotional and physical aversion caused by the situations described above.

Empalagar is a word that flirts with the line between cordiality and hostility. In English, no one word can express revulsion without being offensive. Using empalagar, one can say to the hostess at their dinner table that you are not partaking of the food because “it makes you sick” and avoid offending them. On the contrary, their attitude towards you becomes understanding and empathic. If someone were to have a personality trait that repulses you, expressing your reaction with empalagar minimizes the rejection and transforms it into an intuitive warning that others can comprehend without the need to agree.

The word empalagar highlights the responsibility of the person receiving rather than the person giving. It delineates socio-linguistic boundaries with humility and subtlety. It is a beautiful reflection of the cultural aspect of the language, specifically for Hispanics, as we aim not to burn bridges between us and, especially, the person feeding us. It is fascinating to acknowledge how one word can powerfully convey cultural representation. 

Aurelia Widjaja

The question of (South) Korean identity and what it means to live in a country that has only some decades ago prevailed past colonialism and poverty into a global power (e.g. Miracle on the Han River) is a rich, nuanced one that bears on its shoulders the consideration of pride, loss, and human perseverance; though these aren’t experiences unavailable to other people, the contexts in which they occur in history are specific to the Korean people and their national identity as a country that has had to earn its patriotism. 

Therefore, Han describes the uniquely Korean conception that arose in the 20th century as a result of grief and resentment for the sake of one’s country at the hands of Japanese colonialism, American imperialism, and national divide; it has therefore also found use as an entity which can be used to describe things which illustrate the breadth of Korean emotion in profound sorrow (more specifically, “the loss of collective identity” [Michael D. Shin]), and is therefore also a powerful, personal emotion. 

The Chinese term from which Korean ‘Han’ was adopted from ‘Hen’ (恨), is translated as resentment, thought it is also translated as pity, regret, and sorrow; in this way, the emotion implied in Han’s “original” form is itself a complex amalgam of several emotions, describable as the overwhelm of grief, sorrow, and enmity that arises from loss and oppression.

DJ Fernandez

Hiraya is a Tagalog word with a rich historical background that dates back to pre-colonial times in the Philippines, when the archipelago was divided into various kingdoms. It was used to describe the noble aspirations of these kingdoms and was associated with the concept of a utopian society. Hiraya was a guiding principle that directed the actions of leaders and citizens alike.

In the present day, hiraya’s definition encompasses the hopes and dreams of individuals and communities that motivate them to strive for a better future. It represents idealism that is deeply ingrained in Philippine literature, music, art, and overall culture.

Hiraya’s complexity makes it difficult to capture its meaning in a single English word. While one might translate hiraya as “aspiration” or “hope,” these words do not fully encapsulate its unique meaning. Hiraya is more than just a desire for something better— it is an idealistic vision of the future that has been shaped by centuries of Philippine culture, the collective experience of generational colonization, and remains a symbol of resilience for millions of Filipinos. Hiraya is a powerful concept that speaks to the power of the human spirit and the potential for transformation. Attempts to translate hiraya have run the risk of oversimplification or distorting its meaning.

To translate hiraya accurately, a machine learning tool would need to be equipped with a deep understanding of Philippine history and culture. It would need to recognize the intricate relationship between language, history, and cultural values that give rise to words like hiraya. Furthermore, it would need to capture the emotional and figurative nuances of the word, which machine translation often fails to do. To achieve a more human-like understanding of language, a more sophisticated approach to machine translation is needed that takes into account the unique cultural contexts in which words like hiraya are used.