Translating Australian English

Last week we offered some untranslatable words that you might use on holidays and our commenters came back with some even better suggestions including some home-grown suggestions.

One anonymous commentator suggested the excellent Australianism, ‘dag’. Their explanation gave played out the subtleties of the word that’s evolved beyond the barnyard. “You can explain the unpleasant farming origins of the word but it’s difficult to say how this relates to the common usage— which is at once slightly disparaging and affectionate, and can be about style or manner.”

‘Michael’ talked about the untranslatable nature of Shane Maloney’s books, including phrases like ‘Unreconstructed Whitlamite’ and ‘paddle-pop stick’. The most totally untranslatable phrase was a sublime example of Strine that may not even make sense to the most dinkum of us: “Wendy had pissed in every pocket within a bull’s roar of Lake Burley Griffin”. We think it means roughly that Wendy had maligned most of Canberra but it could also be an incontinence problem.

We also mentioned a story of Nick Earls being unable to translate pikelet for his US edition of Perfect Skin. Earls wrote about the translation experience in Australian saying that most of the suburb names were sacrificed, “bitumen became asphalt” and the humble pikelet was flipped into another dessert. As Earls tells it “The role of pikelets in the US edition was played by a jelly ring. And I think the US version includes a line about female gym teachers, which my editor wrote and told me would be very funny there.” Interestingly Earls uses the experience of mistranslation as an argument for why parallel importation of books would damage Australian culture.

Not in our backyard but very homey was Richard Watts' suggestion that we should adopt the Danish word hygge, which roughly translates to “a certain type of atmosphere or ambience or well-being evoked by comfort, friendship and familiarity (of people, places, or surroundings).” Couldn’t we all do with a little more hygge?

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