Here’s a game that will provide infinite enjoyment when the buzz has faded at a party: enter ‘untranslatable words’ into a search engine and behold! Your laughter will “glitter along the mead benches”, as promised in the untranslatable Anglo-Saxon, gamen eft astah / beorhtode bencsweg, of Beowulf (beautiful, isn’t it?).
They are tricky creatures, these lexical gaps, words so loaded with colloquial and cultural meaning that there is no adequate one-to-one translation to other languages. In many situations, languages bypass this problem by borrowing words and phrases simply from one tongue to another (think of our acceptance of croissant) or in a process where languages ‘calque’, translating phrases verbatim from the mother tongue. Other linguistic gaps become paraphrased, such as ‘a song stuck in the head’, from the German ohrwurm, ‘earworm’, which also exists as the more sonically aesthetic ver d’oreille in French. Paraphrasing also falters as it often dilutes the original phrase’s condensed punchiness. Instead of elegantly looping from one winding auditory canal to another, the musical worm becomes stuck in the ear, poor thing.
The real joy begins when you sit in your kitchen with your flat mates on a Sunday night to study; that is, exchange bits of gossip from the weekend’s happenings. I chucked in my share of interesting yet utterly useless facts and read out some choice ‘untranslatables’ from Google, all uncannily suitable for the evening. Some of us were stretched out on the couch being deliciously nenna, the Icelandic attribute for being too lazy to feel like participating in anything at the moment. Others rehashed fights with friends and considered becoming an ilunga, a person who is ready to forgive an injury the first time, to tolerate it the second, but never a third (from Tshiluba, a Congolese language). Without fail we were riveted by these linguistic discoveries, a favourite being the Yiddish gem schmuck, an annoying person. Literally, schmuck means jewels. Metaphorically, it refers to the precious ‘family jewels’. Translated plainly, it’s a cock or penis.
The more coquettish untranslatables sparked interesting revelations: the chauvinistic Japanese term bakku shan received nodded approval from the guys, bakku shan being ‘the feeling you get from seeing a woman appearing pretty from behind but not from the front’, while the female members of the kitchen praised the lovely Portuguese cafune, the act of ‘tenderly running your fingers through your lover’s hair’.
The general consensus on the best untranslatable however, made us all silent and thoughtful, as we contemplated our first week back in September: the sophisticated koi no yokan – the Japanese sense that you are going to fall in love with someone upon first meeting them. This is not, it should be noted, love at first sight, but rather the future possibility, perhaps even certainty, of love, which implies a mature, unfolding kind of deep sympathy, as opposed to a passionate head-over-heels coup de foudre of the French.
There’s also more to the untranslatables, hilarious though they are. They often communicate mental habits deeply ingrained in the culture of the language. What do the English borrowings of schadenfreude, weltanschauung and poltergeist (famous at least since Peeves) tell us about Germany? Or, for that matter, about England and its view of German culture? Exactly what image is picked out and projected by lexical gaps and the way they are closed? It’s a contested issue among linguists whether the grammar and available vocabulary of a language determine the way of thought of the speakers. Grasping the untranslatables attunes us to the subtleties of a language and the minds of its speakers, and helps us to navigate on that most difficult river that is human communication.
Can we have an understanding for a concept if there is no word for it? Let’s take the English word ‘mind’, which beautifully conveys all the complexities that cluster around human consciousness. ‘Mind’ means human psyche, the innermost core of one’s being, and the way of thinking that makes a person an individual. But also, and just as elusively, it means the spirit or soul (called psyche in Greek from ‘blowing’). ‘Mind’ also means ‘will’ or ‘drive’, and goes right back to the Anglo-Saxon mod. Latin has mens, but French and German do not have words for the mind. Does this mean they cannot conceive of the idea of the mind? Maybe there doesn’t need to be an answer to that, since it’s the hardest but most exciting process in learning a language to think oneself into its quirky workings.