The Difference is in the Design: How Untranslatable Words Challenge Technology and Pedagogy


When people talk about translation, they are usually thinking about the process of taking a word from one language and pairing it with a corresponding word in another language. In this model, translation becomes an act of substitution, with the goal being an accurate one-to-one replacement of words in the first language with words in the second language.

Most current digital translation tools operate on this translation-as-replacement model. Users type in a word or phrase in one language, select the desired destination language, and click “Translate.” The equivalent word (or a selection of equivalent words) in the destination language then appears on the screen. Users can take these translated words and plug them in as substitutes for the original words entered into the translation tool.

The problem with this model is both a question of politics and practicality. Let’s talk about the issue of practicality first by taking a field trip:

  1. Go to Google’s online translation tool. 
  2. Type in the word “gigil” and translate it into English.
  3. Remember the result you get back.

The problem with this digital translation is not only that the results returned are vague, but also that they’re inaccurate. I came across this word during some video interviews I (along with Anne von Petersdorff) conducted with multilingual international students at Michigan State University. Listen to this brief video montage of our interviews; notice how José, a Filipino student, describes “gigil.”

Pretty different, isn’t it?

When we set out to conduct these interviews with students, we wanted to talk with them about words they had in their first languages that they had trouble translating into English. We did this, partially, to show the amazing richness of culture that gets embedded in language and to demonstrate one small example about how language shapes (and is shaped by) cultural worldviews.

Most current digital translation tools have no mechanisms to account for the richness of language. They do not take into account the gestures, motions, sounds, and other strategies multilingual speakers employ when trying to explain untranslatable words. If you have the chance to rewatch the video, take note of all the non-verbal resources multilingual speakers draw upon to explain their concepts and ideas. They’re everywhere. And they teach us a few things about how multilingual speakers move between languages and how, by repositioning untranslatability as an asset, we can disrupt some stereotypes and misconceptions of multilingual speakers.

In the rest of this article, I will point out some of the stereotypes/misconceptions I’ve heard about multilingual speakers and show how our research on untranslatable words challenges and/or contradicts those ideas. In so doing, I also hope to point out how the same misconceptions about multilingualism and translation get embodied in current digital translation tool design. I will then illustrate the ways we can learn from the experiences of multilingual speakers to design better translation tools and experiences.

Stereotype 1: Multilingual speakers  just need to know more vocabulary words.

As an instructor for first-year writing at a four-year university, one piece of feedback I have heard often regarding international multilingual students is that they just need to know more English. It’s said that they lack the vocabulary necessary to understand what’s happening in the classroom and that their writing doesn’t reflect a college-level mastery of the English language.

While in some instances this may be true, statements like these presume the same one-to-one correspondence as the digital translation tools mentioned earlier. It assumes that when multilingual speakers encounter words in one language there must be an equivalent word in their native language and vice versa. Therefore, not being able to find the equivalent translation word gets positioned as a deficit of the multilingual student with the statement that, if they had only known more words, they should have been able to find the right alternative.

For example, Kei, right before sitting down to talk with us about komorebi (roughly translated as a type of sunlight that is filtered through leafy trees) expressed a fear that he wouldn’t be able to find the right words to translate komorebi into English. Our team tried to assure him that the goal of the project was to see if there were words that were, by definition, almost impossible to translate into English. We talked with him about how we knew we were asking him to do something hard and that the result would probably be a little messy. And that was okay. While this seemed to make him feel a little better about the task, he still wasn’t completely confident when we started interviewing.

We encountered moments like these frequently throughout the project. It was a challenge we hadn’t really expected and there were moments when the nervousness in the room was palpable. It wasn’t until later that we reflected on why this fear may have existed among the students we spoke with. We realized that we had asked these international students to do precisely the type of thing they may have been punished for in previous educational spaces or that they were told were errors when they used digital translation tools. It’s rare when ambiguity, instead of certainty, is celebrated within education. Add to this the added pressure multilingual students face to demonstrate mastery of the educational language, and we create an environment in which students feel compelled to provide a sufficient translation and feel embarrassed or a sense of failure when such a translation cannot be provided.

Stereotype 2: When it comes to translation, all you need are words.

The translation model I used to open this article is word-centric. The focus of the process is on taking one word and finding the equivalent word/words in another language that convey similar ideas. But what we saw in the untranslatable research project was that multilingual speakers frequently employ non-verbal techniques to convey meaning — especially when that meaning is difficult to articulate verbally.

For example, Kei brought a digital image to help him talk about what was meant by komorebi. José used hand gestures and voice inflection to help us understand the emotion of gigil. Georgina explained enjache by physically enacting what enjache means. Mary-Ann accompanied her explanation of cocotazo with the hand motions and voice inflections that typically accompany that word when used in context.

All of these examples illustrate that, sometimes, non-verbal cues are essential when translating words. However, in digital translation tools, there is no space for users to either import or receive non-verbal information from the system.

Stereotype 3: Multilingual speakers need extra guidance in thinking about audience

While many monolingual instructors/supervisors/etc. understand that multilingual speakers find themselves moving between different discourse environments, there’s often the assumption or implication that there’s an additional responsibility to help multilingual speakers manage this navigation process. Discussions around this topic often frame multilingual students as having extra challenges when it comes to rhetorical communication because their writing situations are often more complicated.

However, the untranslatable project demonstrates that, far from requiring additional help to understand audience and purpose, multilingual speakers are typically more sensitive to rhetorical considerations— precisely because of the complex navigations they make on a daily basis.

One example from our video most clearly helps illustrate this idea. At 3:24, Anas — a native of Syria — introduces the phrase “mafi al domari.” He then goes on to talk about what that concept means, translating it roughly into a way to describe a place that is so empty that even the people who would traditionally live there to do essential city upkeep have left. But what is fascinating to us about Anas’ interview is the way he immediately pairs his understanding of this word with the idea that this phrase is highly contextualized within that language and within a particular community of speakers within that language. He articulates the ways in which this phrase is extremely contextualized, saying, “If I say it anywhere other than Syria, no one will understand…it means something to us and no one will understand it but us.” Anas here demonstrates a high sensitivity to audience and a deeply contextual understanding of communication.

The examples presented here illustrate how multilingual speakers bring cognitive assets (not deficits) to the classroom. This project also asks us to think about how digital translation tools can be designed to be cognizant of context and to give cues about not only what a word means, but also how a word should be used within various communities of discourse.

As digital technologies play a larger role in our lives — and as more multilingual speakers find themselves in our educational spaces — it’s important that we think critically about how we understand translation practices and the assumptions that we build into digital translation tools. Technology and pedagogy have the ability to empower multilingual speakers, but they also have the ability to disempower and disenfranchise those speakers. The difference is in the design.


  • Rebecca Zantjer

    Rebecca Zantjer is a Master's student in Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing at Michigan State University. Her thesis work revolves around understanding how difference is talked about and recognized in the usability/user experience community. Other research interests involve user experience research and design, storytelling for usability, and documentary filmmaking.

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