Nicola and Chiara have raised an interesting issue: the semiotic triangle and un/translatability. What if we do not have the signifier to express a certain signified? Are signified culturally determined? To what extent we can really “translate” languages and cultures”? Or, to add some more questions, how can we refer to “object” that are not real? Are non-referring terms meaningless? What is a referent, then?
For instance, and by quoting philosopher William Van Orman Quine, “How can we talk about Pegasus? To what does the word ‘Pegasus’ refer? If our answer is, ‘Something,’ then we seem to believe in mystical entities; if our answer is, ‘nothing’, then we seem to talk about nothing and what sense can be made of this? Certainly when we said that Pegasus was a mythological winged horse we make sense, and moreover we speak the truth! If we speak the truth, this must be truth about something. So we cannot be speaking of nothing.”
These questions are crucial and have been hugely debated in the last century. I can only invite you to read more (i.e. handbooks of semiotics, to begin with) and, in case, to discover the work of philosophers like Quine and Hilary Putnam. In The Meaning of “Meaning” (1975; but see also his Language and reality, 1975), Putman tried, for instance, to describe the meaning of every term in the language by recurring to a finite sequence of elements (or “vectors”), referring to:
- the object to which the term refers, e.g., the object individuated by the chemical formula H2O;
- a set of typical descriptions of the term, referred to as “the stereotype”, e.g., “transparent”, “colorless”, and “hydrating”;
- the semantic indicators that place the object into a general category, e.g., “natural kind” and “liquid”;
- the syntactic indicators, e.g., “concrete noun” and “mass noun”.
This “meaning-vector” model should provide not only a description of the reference and use of an expression within a particular linguistic community, but also the conditions for its correct usage, and the speakers’ appropriateness. According to Putnam, actually, it should be legitimate to speak of a change in the meaning of an expression only if the reference of the term (and not its stereotype), has changed.
However, let’s go back to “untranslatability”, which at this stage is more approachable, I think. It would be already a good starting point to see what we mean by “untranslatability”, and distinguish between “cultural untranslatability”, when there is no equivalent situational feature (see the example given by Nicola) and “linguistic untranslatability”, when there is no lexical or syntactical equivalent (see J.C. Catford A Linguistic Theory of Translation, Oxford, Oxford Univ Press, 1965).
You can find more on the definition of “untranslatability” by reading the:
But if you want to start with something funnier, have a look at these two webpages:
(and click also on the cover above)