Untranslatable Words – Serendipity

By Yves Avérous

In my language direction, English to French, the first word that comes to mind when I am asked about untranslatable words or expressions is serendipity. And, in fact, I’m apparently not the only one: in June, 2004, a British translation company voted serendipity one of the ten most difficult words in the English language to translate. But the problem in French, as it turns out, is less about finding an equivalent concept than it is about finding as beautiful a word! (Although the word form has lately been imported into French as sérendipicité or sérendipité, these are not accepted, or even known, usages.)

It took an extremely refined Earl of England, Horace Walpole, to coin a noun so flourished and evocative. And discovering this word for the first time was for me—as I suspect it might be even for native English speakers—itself serendipitous, a “happy discovery” or “happy coincidence.”

Serendipity has no direct equivalent in French, but there is more than one popular expression to translate this happy turn of fate. “Ça tombe à pic,” “quel heureux hasard,” or even the optimistic saying “le hasard fait bien les choses.”

Here is a word with the quality of never being boring; it conjures up the most exciting and extravagant stories. Even the sound of it stirs the imagination: “serene,” “Serengeti,” “dippity-doo,” “des petits sereins” (little birds) … and all sorts of pleasing notions. Serendipity, in fact, comes from a quite beautiful proper name in itself: “Serendip,” an old name for the island of Sri Lanka, also known as Ceylon. And it is a legendary tale, “The Three Princes of Serendip,” which so enthralled Walpole that it inspired him to create our untranslatable word!

The connection? Ceylon was fashionable at the time of the writing of the tale, and riddle-solving in the literary salons of elegant Venice even more so. What made the three princes of Serendip successful was their great sense of observation and deductive reasoning, which led to Walpole’s notion of “a gift for discovery by accident and sagacity while in pursuit of something else.”

The original definition of serendipity is indeed “discovery by accident,” but in a very neutral, not necessarily happy, way. When, for example, Alexander Fleming noticed as he was cleaning his laboratory that penicillin mold had contaminated one of his experiments, the discovery of this wonder drug could certainly be said to have been a “serendipitous” event.

These days, one of the best ways to make serendipitous discoveries is to browse the Internet with the help of a search engine such as Google or Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. Using either of these tools one can, and often does, stumble upon unexpected (and sometimes unexpectedly happy) discoveries. (A caveat—because Wikipedia is written by its readers in a collaborative effort, not all that is published there is to be taken as gospel. Perhaps that’s why the French version of the serendipity article is titled “Sérendipité”!)

Wikipedia will, however, reward you with an article by Robert Boyle on “The Three Princes of Serendip,” which brings to light the amazing voyage of the tale from its introduction to a Western audience in 1557 by Venetian publisher Michele Tramezzino to its ultimate role almost 200 years later in inspiring the famous word. It was in 1754 that Lord Walpole acknowledged in a correspondence to his friend Horace Mann the receipt of a painting, painstakingly obtained, as serendipitous.

The final words on the subject belong to author John Barth who, in The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991), wrote a beautiful evocation of serendipity: “You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for somewhere else and lose your bearings, serendipitously.”