“Lost in translation” – such a well-worn idiom – but if, as author Anthony Burgess famously claimed, “Translation … is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture”, then no wonder the term’s been done to death. How is it possible to communicate an entire culture by words alone?
As a translator, one has to switch between languages quickly. Finding the appropriate word in a language is difficult when there is no direct translation of the word or phrase. Untranslatability can occur when there are no grammatical or syntactical equivalents in the target language (for example, in Russian, the verb “to have” is not used in the same way as it is in English, in fact, it is rarely used at all. Instead, “by/at me, there is …” are used to convey the meaning of possession). Untranslatability can also occur when the source and target languages do not share a common cultural understanding. This is known as the Whorf hypothesis, named after linguist Benjamin Whorf, who believed the structure of language affects the reader’s world view, “observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are the same”.
Take, for example, the German noun Merkeldämmerung. Merkel refers to German Chancellor, Angela Merkel of course, and a Dämmerung is (very roughly) a transition from or into darkness, as at twilight or early dawn. To be able to translate Merkeldämmerung as precisely as possible though, one must first acknowledge its deeper meaning; one must have some knowledge of German politics but one must also be able to recognise the underlying literary reference.
As Germany prepares to go to the polls on 26 September, it must accept that Merkel will no longer be its leader. Merkeldämmerung succinctly conveys Merkel's waning power and influence as outgoing chancellor (her twilight) but at the same time, also neatly encapsulates the entire era of Germany’s success during her 16-year tenure.
But to really understand all that is wrapped up in this neologism, it’s important to know that it was once suggested that Merkel had “a cunning plan to outlive even Wagner’s gods”. The play on words here is key. The German word Dämmerung pays tribute to Wagner’s opera, Götterdämmerung, namely “The twilight of the gods” which depicts the fall of heroes, gods and eventually, the entire world. Merkeldämmerung has no direct equivalent in any other language. It must be understood in its cultural context.
It could be compared to Trumpocalypse, the “aftermath of an unexpected outcome in the transference of leadership”. Both terms are only really similar in that they are compound nouns comprising politicians’ names which dramatise political situations. Trumpocalypse is fairly simplistic; we know who Trump is and we know what an apocalypse is.
The German language has a lot of compound nouns. Linguistically therefore, Merkeldämmerung is less surprising. It is also just two words strung together; it does not rely on a phonetical liaison like the common ‘p’ in the portmanteau Trumpocalypse. Merkeldämmerung, however, is much more subtle and culture laden. We need to understand the reference to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and see the comparison that is being drawn with the politically giant figure of Angela Merkel whose period in power is up, like that of Wagner’s gods.
Still, Dämmerung is somewhat ambiguous. As noted above, it can mean both twilight and dawn. In this sense the main idea is that Merkel is approaching the end of her time in power, whilst in the original narrative, there is a sense of renewal: the new gods taking over from the old gods. There is a deeper sense here that German politics will be reborn after Merkel’s departure.
In short, Merkeldämmerung can only really be understood in its cultural context and possibly only truly by Germans or those living in Merkel’s Germany. It is surely an untranslatable word. Textual reformulation would not suffice as it may change the meaning; the meaning does not reside in the text but is generated by interpretation and in this case can be seen as unverbalised thought translated into language. Leaving it as “the twilight of Merkel” does not capture the essence or deeper meaning associated with it.
As Noam Chomsky famously said, “A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language”.
 Whorf, B.L., 1940. Cambridge, Mass. [online] https://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/whorf.scienceandlinguistics.pdf
 Timothy Garton Ash, Financial Times, 22 November 2019
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By guest writer, Zoë Smith
Final-year student of Translation Studies at Cardiff University
Photo credit: German flag: Christian Wiediger on Unsplash; Language books, own