I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means: Five Literary Words That Were Tricky to Translate

Posted by Blair Thornburgh

Happy International Translation Day! Or should I say Joyeux Jour de la Traduction, or perhaps Guten Übersetzungtag?

Semantics aside (for now), translation deserves to be celebrated: it’s awesome, it’s nifty, and it’s essential. Unless you want to spend years learning Russian or Old Icelandic, you need translators if you want to become well-read. But taking a work of literature in one language and wrangling it into another goes way beyond just flipping words over like flash cards—anyone who’s ever screwed around on Google translate for two minutes can tell you that. Preserving the poetry and power of certain passages is a delicate business—and a messy one. Here are five famously stubborn words that have caused many a footnote (and headache) for translators.

oínopa, adj. Homeric Greek, The Odyssey
Reading The Odyssey is an eye-opening experience…except when it comes to colors. We moderns might think of things like the sea and the sky being, you know, blue, but not Homer. For whatever reason (theories range from actual color-blindness to a massive poetic license), the ancient poet never uses the b-word (or its equivalent) to describe the churning waters sailed by noble Odysseus. His modifier of choice? Oínopa, a word that comes from oínos, meaning “wine,” and óps, meaning “eye” or “face.” Since “winey-eyed” is a little too “That’s Amore” for most modern readers, the conventional English translation is “wine-dark,” thanks to Liddell and Scott’s famous Greek-English Lexicon of 1843. But there are some modern, renegade classical scholars who have opted for “wine-blue” or “gray-wine,” which begs an entirely new question: what kind of weirdo wine is getting poured out at those faculty fundraisers?


hwæt, interjection/pronoun. Old English, Beowulf
Imagine sitting around a cozy fire in your lord’s Ye Olde Hall, swigging back some (non-gray) wine and carrying on with your Anglo-Saxon warrior buddies. In the corner, a nervous-looking bard is plucking away at his harp strings, but no one listens—too much shouting and drinking and brawling going on. How is this guy supposed to get your attention over the din so he can regale you with tales of noble princes and gruesome fen-monsters? Enter hwæt. It literally means “what,” but at the beginning of epic poems, it serves as a kind of “SHUT UP AND LISTEN, YOU SLOBS.” Hwæt is the signal that stuff is about to go down, poem-wise, like a more forceful, less fanciful “once upon a time.” Unfortunately, Modern English translations of Beowulf can’t seem to agree on how to treat it. Some get all bossy with “Listen!” or “Hear me!” or “Attend!” and some go the Biblical route with “Lo!” but none of these really satisfies the hwæssup quality of the original. My personal favorite is from Seamus Heaney (RIP): the awesomely understated “So.”


Maman, n. French, À La Recherche du Temps Perdu.
When he wasn’t crunching away at lemon cookies, Marcel Proust was a writer who, to quote Little Miss Sunshine, “spent 20 years writing a book almost no one reads.”  He was also (spoiler alert!) an inveterate Maman’s boy. Those souls brave enough to chip away at the world’s longest literary nostalgia kick—but not brave enough to do it in the original, impenetrable French—encounter a host of traductory attempts to render the word Penguin says is “neither ‘mummy’ nor ‘mother’, but suggests at once the intimacy of the former and the seriousness and maturity of the latter.” Published solutions thus far have included, in descending order of Norman Batesiness, “Mamma,” (two m’s), “Mama,” (one), and “Mum.”


Penitenziagite, imperiative v., kind of? Latin, ish. The Name of the Rose.
Leave to Umberto Eco to write a book with inherent translational complications. Eco is not only an accomplished novelist, but a semiotician (i.e., guy who studies the meanings of words), so messing around with language is kind of his wheelhouse. The Name of the Rose was originally written in Italian, but that’s not the complicated part: most of its characters are monks, who, if you don’t know, basically spent their entire lives reading, speaking, and singing in other languages. Even better, (or worse), one of them is bonkers insane. Kooky Brother Salvatore hobbles around muttering in a strange hodgepodge of Latin, Italian, Catalan, French (maybe?), and—in translation, anyway—English. But no matter the language of the edition, his catchprase—penitenziagite—is left as-is. In a very nutso nutshell, penitenziagite is short for Poenitentiam agite, appropinquavit enim regnum caelorum, a really long Latin phrase that basically means “REPENT!” (but more crazy-sounding).

Still don’t get it? Good—that’s the point.


Mó Yàn (莫言), proper noun/verbal phrase, Chinese.
The winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in literature has a clever pen name…if you understand Chinese. The nom de plume of writer Guan Moye, Mó Yàn has been variously glossed in English as “speechless,” “don’t speak,” “not talking.” No matter how you parse it, though, it’s a savvily ironic moniker for a writer of controversial, revisionist works—by speaking it, you disobey.

Blair Thornburgh

Blair Thornburgh

BLAIR THORNBURGH is a graduate of the University of Chicago, where she earned a B.A. in medieval studies and delivered a pretty good commencement speech. She lives in Philadelphia.