2024 The winners of the Exploring the Boundaries of Translation Contest

March 11, 2024

We would like to thank everyone who participated in this contest that asks undergraduates to name a word they consider to be untranslatable and to explore the linguistic, cultural, social, and affective reasons for its untranslatability. 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. 

Congratulations to the winners! Please scroll down to read the full submission.

1st Place

Julia Iwahori: 青春, “seishun” (Japanese)

2nd Place

Brenda Ngo: thương (Vietnamese)

3rd Place

Arya Taupier Vishin: उन्मीलन (Hindi)

Full Submissions

Julia Iwahori

This word is comprised of two kanji characters, “blue” (青) and “spring”(春). Putting these two characters together spells out “seishun” (青春). Taken from the Yin-Yang and the Five Element philosophy of ancient China, originally, “seishun” was used to represent spring, because blue was the color that was associated with this season. Furthermore, spring represented the ages of 15 to 29, meaning the young generation. However, over time, this word took on a deeper, more descriptive meaning that follows Japanese culture and literature traditions that often use expressions that represent the four seasons of nature. It is said that Natsume Sōseki’s novel “Sanshirō” was one of the first to use “seishun” in the context that is most often associated with today, depicting teenagers and coming-of-age students. 

Today, “seishun” refers to the feeling of youthful exuberance, joy, and energy. Along with the bittersweetness and nostalgia one feels when looking back at old memories. Like the spring, which has remnants of the cold winter but also the flowers ready to bloom, the word expresses the simultaneous excitement and unexplainable sadness one can feel, not exclusively applicable to the years of youth but throughout each chapter of life. 

I consider this word “untranslatable” because to truly understand the meaning of “seishun,” one must experience or consume its meaning through descriptions in literature, visuals in photography, the emotions in videography, or in real life. A singular translation like “youth” or “nostalgia” is not sufficient to encapsulate the depth of this word’s meaning. I picked this word because I have never found a word that creates such vivid imagery and feelings. When I hear this word, I envision my version of my “seishun” and the memories, images, voices, and emotions that I associate them with. In a way, this word is subjective to the person interpreting the word, and the context it is presented in, and I believe that is its charm. My meaning or translation of “seishun” is different from my grandfather’s or my teacher’s. That is what creates such depth to this word, and therefore enhances the dialogue, story, or wherever it is used. Today, the use of “seishun” in anime and other pop culture has created stereotypical images like students laughing under a blue sky, or running in their school uniforms, however, it is important to remember that this word means a lot more than that.

Brenda Ngo

Until I learned what “yêu” was, the only word for “love” that existed to me, who grew up in a Vietnamese household, was the word “thương.” Both words mean love, and both are as serious as the expressions on my mom’s face when she tells me how much she “thương” me. However, while “yêu” is closer to the English word “love,” “thương” is a deeper, untranslatable form of love that means more than love to me. 

Vietnamese is a relatively new language. I found out only recently that our words are derived from Chinese characters, and that the equivalent character for “thương” means hurting and sadness. I think it fits well, because if I had to find a word in English that could come even a little closer to “thương”, it would be familial love. In a family, you hurt each other, and you feel sad with each other, but at the end of the day you still love each other unconditionally because you’re family. 

The thing is, for me, that Chinese character also means something else that’s much more personal. My mom hurt so much in her life. She immigrated here to the U.S. from Vietnam at only 18 years old. I remember she told me how she would only eat two meals a day because that was all she could afford. She told me how she would call home and cry, and how she wished she wasn’t across the world from her family. She told me how much she “thương” me, who didn’t even exist yet, and how she persevered just because of how deeply that “thương” rested in her heart. 

My mom’s story, and her journey to create a better life for me, is why I don’t believe “thương” could ever be translated. To translate this word, you have to understand how this love came to be. When you “yêu” someone, you want to buy a cake for them because you hope they’ll like it. When you “thương” your child, your mom, your family, you want to sacrifice your sleep to bake their favorite cake yourself, because you know they love eating sweet things in the morning from making their breakfast all these years. Even now, I’m still struggling to understand how deep my mom’s “thương” runs for me. And so, no machine translator, no AI, could never come close to translating that selfless kind of love.

Arya Taupier Vishin

उन्मीलन (transliterated loosely as “unmeelan”) is a Hindi word, originating from Sanskrit. It refers to the opening of the eyes; not necessarily literally (which would be more like “आँखें खोलें”), but in the sense of the entire world opening its eyes, also perhaps described as blooming or unfolding. It can be used in reference to new developments in humanity, or in a more spiritual sense, to a sort of universal gaining of consciousness. (The Sanskrit version can refer to Hindu religious ceremonies in which devotees more literally “open the eyes” of deities, making them come alive, in a sense.) 

One of the most famous uses of this word in Hindi is in Jaishankar Prasad’s epic poem Kamayani: “विश्व का उन्मीलन अभिराम / इसी में सब होते अनुरक्त।” — If you try to translate this via a machine translation tool such as Google Translate, it consistently mistakes “उन्मीलन” to mean “eradication”; in actuality, this line describes everyone being engrossed/absorbed in the great mind of the world “opening its eyes,” gaining consciousness. It mistakes it to mean an act of destruction, when it is really it is more so about coming alive. It is also untranslatable in the sense that there is no equivalent word elsewhere, due to its roots in Hindu theology—words like “awakening” do not quite describe the mystical power of the “blooming”, “unfolding” opening of the world’s eyes. 

I chose this word because my दादी (“dadi” – paternal grandmother), a Hindi-language writer, loves it. Though there are many beautiful, untranslatable words both in Hindi, the language my family speaks now, and Kashmiri, our mother tongue, I wanted to choose one that I did not already know, one where I would have to ask for its meaning in real life rather than understand it via the internet—in learning its meaning, I also became part of the collective oral tradition is central to the construction of so many Indian languages. In a way, in learning its meaning, I was also able to “open my eyes” to recognize a world (and a word) I had not yet understood.

With gratitude

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

  • Vesna Rodic, French instructor, Director of Lower Division, Coordinator of Second-year French Language Program
  • Emily Hellmich, Associate Director of the Berkeley Language Center (BLC)
  • Zara Brandt, undergraduate, major in anthropology
  • 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. 

Essay prompts:

(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) (optional) 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. What would a machine translation (Google Translate, etc.)/Generative AI tool need to know in order to be able to translate this word?