The Beauty of Untranslatable Words

The original version of this post appears on http://thoughtcatalog.com/2012/the-beauty-of-untranslatable-words/.

I have been obsessed with language, both my native one and otherwise, ever since I learned to read. I’ve been a voracious reader my entire life, and in the past ten years, I’ve studied two languages, German and Japanese, in-depth, while delving into two others, Arabic and Spanish, for shorter, less dedicated stints. Now, I make a living out of trying to explain the labyrinth of the English language to Japanese high school students. I like words, to put it plainly.

And though there are about a million reasons that I’ll call myself a lover of words, one of the main reasons lies within words that are untranslatable into any other language. Every language has them, words that just don’t resonate correctly when you try to put them into a tongue other than that which originally expressed them.

Google “untranslatable words” and you’ll be greeted with dozens of lists of the “top” foreign words that just can’t be translated into English (or any other tongue, for that matter, if English isn’t your first language).

The thing is, most of these words don’t describe concepts that are completely foreign to society. That’s one of the reasons that these lists are so popular; no-one reads them and thinks, “Why would you need a word for that, I’ve never felt that before in my life!” No, it’s always, “Why don’t we have a word for that?! It’s perfect!”

Every person has felt “l’esprit d’escalier” (literally, “staircase wit”), or the feeling of thinking of the perfect comeback for an argument only after you’ve walked away, but we don’t have a perfect term to describe it. Most men are probably familiar with the concept behind the German “Drachenfutter,” or the gift a husband needs to buy to placate his wife when he’s done something wrong. We’ve all told a “jayus,” or a joke executed so badly that you can’t help but laugh at it. If we’ve gone walking on a summer day, we’ve probably marveled at “komorebi” (木漏れ日), or the way sunlight filters through leaves from above. There are words like “mamihlapinatapei” (say that five times fast), from the Yaghan language spoken in Tierra del Fuego, which describes the look shared between two people who want a relationship, but are both too shy to initiate it.  I’m willing to bet that every person has exchanged that glance with someone else. We’ve all felt the pain behind the Czech word “litost,” or the unhappiness caused by seeing the person or thing responsible for our misery when we aren’t expecting it. Then there’s “sobremesa,” a Spanish word that is defined as the time you sit around after dinner, having finished eating, and just enjoy the presence of others’ company. How many of us are guilty of leaving a bill unpaid for hours and just relaxing while a restaurant closes up around us?

There are dozens and hundreds more of these types of words. And save for a few exceptions, we probably all understand the concepts they represent and have felt them for ourselves. So why doesn’t every culture have words like these ones, if they represent things that are relatable to all of us? The novelist Salman Rushdie once wrote in his novel Shame, “To unlock a society, look at its untranslatable words.” How true is that? America is known for being a fairly unhealthy country; I know it’s a fairly recently popularized term, but does any other language have a word that means “food baby”?

Maybe all of our respective societies don’t have the building blocks to express certain concepts, even if we feel them regularly. Or rather, they have certain aspects that specifically allow them to find the perfect term for something. Japanese parents are notorious for pushing their children towards academic perfection; maybe it’s only natural that they’d have the word “kyoikumama” (教育ママ), or a mother who does just that.

To be honest, though, maybe it’s better if those words are untranslatable. Better to leave them in their original form, rather than translate them and leave something necessary out in the process. I wish we could start adopting those words, though, because I’d love to be able to use words like “wabi-sabi” (侘び寂び), or the Japanese concept of finding beauty in the imperfections of life and accepting them. Kind of like accepting that untranslatable words, as beautiful as they are, can’t be said in our own languages.

3 thoughts on “The Beauty of Untranslatable Words”

  1. I was brought here by your Thought Catalog articles! I really love languages and as I read this article of yours the first thought that came to my mind was “…wow, she really gets it.” this thought came up again as I read your newest article, “How Do We Decide Where Home Is?” before I realized that it was also written by you. I really enjoy the way you write and the subjects you write about. Also, 木漏れ日 has always been one of my favorite Japanese words 😉 It’s always been my go-to example when telling people about untranslatable Japanese words. Looking forward to more great articles! 🙂

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  2. Japanese has a lot of great words like this – 面倒くさい, しょうがない, ひどい. I often think them to myself and have to try hard to not let them slip out when speaking English!

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