Untranslatable Words and Incommensurable Worlds: Word Circulation in Shifting Language Ideologies

In this paper, “Untranslatable Words and Incommensurable Worlds: Word Circulation in Shifting Language Ideologies,” I follow the trajectory of two Russian words over several cases of use: byt and poshlost. While poshlost is well recognized in the English language, byt remains a mystery.

“In this paper I am looking at two “untranslatable” Russian words that may or may not have made their way into English. I discuss language ideologies emerging in connection with the “domestication” of a new word. How do words make their way into language? What regimes of circulation, acceptance, and discard make them used or rejected by the speakers of the recipient language? What politics of translation surround these transitions? Drawing from theorization of language ideologies by Kroskrity and Silverstein, and theorization of untranslatability by Jacobson, Benjamin, and Povinelli, I am trying to trace two “untranslatable” words in their new contexts – “poshlost” and “byt” – and reconstruct what does the “untranslatability” do to the actual practices of translation and dissemination of notions and discourses in sociopolitical context.”

This is a fascinating kind of work, and I am happy to have been privileged to spend some time on tracing these words and layering out my ideas in connection to them. This is a class paper written back in the day that will likely exist as such and won’t have any continuation in my own work. I have so many writing projects, I have to abandon a lot of them at a certain stage and moment; it is a pity, but there is only a relatively narrow spectrum of my work that I can devote my attention to.
I attempted about incorporating its part on “byt” in my dissertation (as a more pertinent part), but what it boiled down to is that I think I have a footnote somewhere around my writings that I continue working on, mentioning Svetlana Boym and Jacobson who considered the word “byt” untranslatable.
I think we should not marry to the idea that untranslatable words are a thing, in a sense that every word is untranslatable from the language of one individual into the language of another individual, but that does not preclude us from understanding each other in a sufficient measure.

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