IS EVERYTHING TRANSLATABLE? The book that Gopnik is reviewing is: DICTIONARY OF UNTRANSLATABLES: A PHILOSOPHICAL LEXICON, edited by a number of comparative literature scholars. Gopnik highlights the paradox that the text of the book undermines the title. This dictionary—which is over 1300 pages long—lists a number of words in foreign languages that may be claimed to be “untranslatable” and proceeds to translate each of them into clear English. The book attempts to show that there are no words that are untranslatable by shooting down a number of alleged counterexamples. Taking a similar tack, the linguistics site Language Log has an archive (here) which collects blog entries which puncture claims that there is no equivalent for a particular foreign word. It’s called the ‘No word for X’ Archive, and it has over 50 entries.
The book takes a position on a major dispute in linguistics that I have posted on before, including here. The issue is: Does language shape the way we speak? One line of debate turns on whether there are languages that don’t have a word for a concept in another language and what the consequences are if that happens. If every language can express every concept, then languages do not impose different world views on their speakers. John Mc Whorter (whom I have cited a number of times, as you can find in the “Search” window above) has just published a book arguing that every concept can be expressed in every language: THE LANGUAGE HOAX: WHY THE WORLD LOOKS THE SAME IN ANY LANGUAGE.