Some Words Just Don’t Translate

If you are a native English speaker who speaks or who has tried to speak in another language, you may have found that certain English words don’t have precise equivalents and require long explanations in translation. Awe turns into “overwhelming feeling of admiration, but also a reverential fear”, foliage becomes something like “phenomenon of leaves changing color in the fall, most notably among maple trees,” and bromance probably isn’t even worth the effort it would take to explain it.

Native speakers of foreign languages often have the same problem when speaking English.  In English we have water weight and pregnancy weight, fat-weight and muscle-weight, but a speaker of German may be disappointed to find that we don’t have “grief bacon”, the literal translation of Kummerspeck, which nominates the excess weight gained from emotional overeating.

Have you ever called someone but let the phone ring just once and then hung up? In some countries this type of call is not a prank but a way of communicating “I’m just thinking of you” or “OK, I’m on board with what you said in that last text message”, or “Call me back!”, all without spending a single dime. In the Czech and Slovak languages this kind of hit-and-run call is a Prozvonit and in Italian it is a Squillo.

Do you know any people who engage in Tingo? That is- people who come into possession of items which they desire by borrowing them from the house of a friend? These people would feel at home among the speakers of the Pascuense language on Easter Island. Furthermore, if you have any friends who are experts in the art of the Jayus– the joke told so poorly that you just can’t help but laugh- send them to Indonesia where their jokes have a name!

Some foreign words hit the mark so well that it is worth absorbing them into the English language as they are. Many Yiddish words have made this trip: Schtick, schmuck, and chutzpah are just a few examples. The German word Schadenfreude has become a common way to refer to taking pleasure in the suffering of others. French and Italian words such as à la mode and al dente abound in culinary language. The Japanese sent their kamikazes to Pearl Harbor during World War II and left the word in our language.

The existence of untranslatable words is just one more reason to learn foreign languages. We can find all of Dostoyevsky’s masterpieces in excellent English translations and with Google translate we can read Russian newspaper articles without ever having to look at the Cyrillic alphabet; however certain nuances of Mother Russia will always be lost in translation. As Vladimir Nabokov writes with regard to the word toska:  “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

The parts of the Greek Orthodox Mass said or sung in Greek are steeped in an ancient sacredness which no translation into any language could do justice, and Islamic prayers are surely much more powerful in Arabic than in translation. Seeing Roberto Benigni act in Italian or Penelope Cruz in Spanish, reading authors such as Goethe, Cervantes, or Hugo in their original language: these are all reasons to learn foreign languages. Arguably, the greatest reward of knowledge of a foreign language is not the ability to express ourselves, but the ability to understand new things which in our own language seemed not to exist. That is to say, excess weight gained from emotional overeating surely doesn’t exist only in Germany, but having a name for it makes it much easier to talk about!


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