Translating the untranslatable

Translators face many challenges in attempting to convey meaning from the medium of one language to another. The many idioms, nuances and semantic differences between languages renders all acts of translation necessarily imprecise. In other words, translation, especially of literature, is very much an art rather than a science.

Corpus linguistics has helped to generate some significant insights into how translators go about this delicate task of transformation while preserving meaning. By comparing large bodies of text, such as EU documentation, which are rendered into multiple languages simultaneously, corpus methodologies have assisted understanding of the alchemical process of translation.

But dry and precise legislative documents are one thing; literature provides a series of additional challenges to translators seeking to transmit the literary experience and meaning across language barriers. The challenge of translating aesthetic, cultural, metric and prosodic components sometimes seems insurmountable, or at least, an act of approximation.

Then there are additional challenges – that of translating dialectal elements, or dense idiomatic components closely related to individual cultures. In relation to our project – the translation corpus of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ – we are examining how translators seek to convey the meaning inherent in ‘Nadsat’, the invented teen dialect in which the novella is written.

We hope to use methodologies derived from corpus linguistics to illuminate this translation process, in the hope that it may tell us new things about how the artistic aspect of translation functions.

We’re keen to hear from other researchers who are looking at the process of translating the untranslatable, especially those who are utilising corpus methodologies to do so. And we offer a warm welcome to anyone working in this area to come along to the ‘Ponying the Slovos’ conference at Coventry in March.

Introducing Invented Languages

Douglas Bigham, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at San Diego State University, presents a really interesting introduction to the whole idea of invented languages, and how art languages fit into that wider context.

The link on Youtube has an especially useful list of links to websites about individual art languages which is well worth exploring.

Tolkien’s Invented Languages

Tolkien can be seen as the father of invented art languages. His Middle Earth mythos, whose tales have thrilled generations of readers, and latterly cinema goers also, only came into being because of his fascination with language and desire to create his own languages.

Elvish, which exists in two main forms in his work – Quenya and Sindarin, is the best known of these, and is thought to be heavily influenced by Finnish and Welsh, two languages Tolkien found aesthetically beautiful.

But behind these largely complete languages exist a whole complex body of linguistic development, for as a scholar Tolkien was well aware that languages do not come into being fully formed, but organically grow and change over time. He began work on his ‘Elvin tongue’ while still a schoolboy in Birmingham and was still working on it when he died over six decades later.

But the family of Elvish languages extends far beyond these two variants, and even they form only a small part of Tolkien’s full creative linguistic achievement. He based the secret language of his dwarves – Khuzdul – on a Semitic, largely Hebrew, base which has led, along with some of his depictions of the dwarves as gold-obsessed, to allegations of anti-semitism.

The race of man in his mythos were granted their own family of languages also, led by Adunaic, the language of the noble race of Numenoreans whose pride led to the sinking of their island utopia before the events depicted in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

From this base descends a panoply of ‘Mannish’ languages in Middle Earth, which Tolkien had once intended to depict separately by ‘translating’ them into different Germanic tongues. Rohirric, the language of Rohan, was to be rendered via Old English, of which Tolkien was himself a leading philologist and professor. The language spoken by the people of the Dale, terrorised by the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit, would be rendered via Old Norse, and the language of the Kingdom of Rhovanion would be rendered via Gothic.

Even the ‘Black Speech’ of Mordor had variant forms, including the higher version which is inscribed on Frodo’s one ring to rule them all, and a lower demotic version spoken by the Orcs.

As early as the 1930s Tolkien had developed such a complex linguistic history for Middle Earth that he wrote a number of versions of a language treatise, entitled the Lhammas, to explain the linguistic lineages and etymologies of the tongues of Middle Earth.

Tolkien sought to explain his passion for creating languages, a process he termed glossopoeia, in an essay entitled ‘The Secret Vice’, which goes some way to revealing how his linguistic interests led ultimately to some of the best-loved literature of the 20th century. The complexity of his linguistic creations naturally required the creation of concomitant cultures to be expressed via those invented languages and it was in this way that Middle Earth came into being.

Tolkien’s expansive and exhaustive achievement of linguistic creation has been influential in the genre of fantastikal literature ever since, as he demonstrated conclusively the role that linguistic invention can play in world-building. That influence can be felt even today, with the invention of Dothraki and Valyrian for the ‘Game of Thrones’ television series, based on George R.R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’.


We started this project in March 2015 with a seedcorn grant from Coventry University.

Since then, we have been joined by colleagues from the University of Birmingham in our quest to discover how ‘untranslatable’ invented art language gets translated, by focusing on the ‘Nadsat’ slang embedded in Anthony Burgess’s cult novella, ‘A Clockwork Orange’.

We’ve already presented some preliminary findings at a conference in Nottingham, which can be viewed at the link below.

We’re looking forward to presenting some more of what we’ve discovered in March at the ‘Ponying the Slovos’ symposium.

Even moreso, we’re excited to hear from other researchers, translators and academics and linguists about what they’ve discovered when they’ve looked at such translation strategies, or when they’ve looked at art languages in literature.

If you’re one such researcher, please consider contributing a paper to the symposium. See the call for paper for details.

Nott poster draft 3