The news last week that the Language Council of Sweden has dropped the neologism ‘ogooglebar’ (a term meaning ‘ungoogleable’) from its list of official additions to the Swedish lexicon generated predictable responses. It is alleged that Google did not wish to see its trademark name diluted to refer to all web searches, and as a result requested that the term be defined instead as ‘something that cannot be found on the web using Google’. The Language Council refused. The generic use of the verb ‘to google’ seems to date back to 2001, but the controversy in this case relates to the inclusion of the ‘un-’ prefix. A company spokesperson commented: ‘While Google, like many businesses, takes routine steps to protect our trademarks, we are pleased that users connect the Google name with great search results’, the implication being that any perceived failure to yield ‘great search results’—or, at an extreme, any search results— may be seen as harmful to the brand. As with other attempts—official or commercial—to intervene in the organic evolution of language and to suggest that vocabulary can be owned, public responses have been robust and a subsequent blogquake has triggered provocative and widespread use of the term.
What interests me about the case is the extent to which the ‘ungoogleable’ may be seen to betoken a point of failure, i.e., recognition that some information may even be beyond the omniscience of a major search engine. In part, the spat may be seen to be the result of a company protecting the perceived infallibility of its brand—nothing is beyond the reach of an effective search engine; at the same time, it may be linked to a faith in progressive illumination and the fear of opacity. The ‘ungoogleable’ can in those terms be linked to the ‘untranslatable’, an aspect that I have from the outset seen as central to the ‘translating cultures’ theme. The ‘untranslatable’ reminds us that translation does not necessarily depend on the free flow of meaning between languages, but can reveal instead an enabling friction which, at its extreme, causes the creation of meaning to stall. The untranslatable is at times evidence of a lexical gap, of a lacuna which the accomplished translator will address with a battery of techniques—but moments of radical untranslatability are not to be understood in terms of success or failure, but should be analyzed in their own right as a source of insight into the forms of intercultural encounter they reveal. Victor Segalen described the ‘eternal incomprehensibility’ that divides different cultures, and Edouard Glissant built on that notion to define the ‘right to opacity’ by which colonized cultures would find the resources for resisting those who seek to control them. The ‘untranslatable’ becomes, in the light of those ideas, a positive quality, as worthy—if not more worthy—of study as the ‘translatable’ itself. Salman Rushdie notes in Shame: ‘To unlock a society, look at its untranslatable words.’