Lost In Translation: An Illustrated Compendium Of Untranslatable Words From Around The World, by Ella Frances Sanders
I have often reflected upon the problems of translation, given that I am a multilingual person who also tends to think and feel in ways that are difficult to find the words for. Often I have lamented that there are no proper words for what I want to describe in the English language, and that other languages sometimes do a better job at conveying the difference between various aspects of a subject. This is most notable when writing about love, where the Greek have four words to describe different sorts of love that are easy enough to distinguish but which the English languages struggles to differentiate between. And this is by no means an isolated problem, as the English language definitely fails to separate out a great many concepts that are distinguished in other languages. This book, as a compendium (a rare sort of book but one I greatly appreciate) is one that is easy to appreciate and there are likely a lot of words here that others will be able to appreciate reading about, some of them far more broad than we would tend to think about and some of them very specific.
In many ways this book is very simply organized, seeing as it contains a non-alphabetical collection of words with accompanying illustrations that have on the right side the word along with its definition according to the author and on the left side a paragraph about the word and some phenomena that demonstrate the word as well as the language that the word comes from. The book begins with pålegg, a Norwegian word that describes, rather broadly, anything that can be put on a piece of bread or between two pieces of bread. From there the author moves to untranslatable words and concepts in a variety of languages, most of them (but not all of them) familiar to Western audiences, including Swedish, Italian, Arabic, Dutch, Welsh, Greek, Tagalog, Malay, Hindi, Icelandic, Japanese, Russian, German, Spanish, Tulu, Indonesian, Yiddish, Nguni Bantu, Yaghan, Farsi, French, Finnish, Korean, Hawaiian, Wagiman, Urdu, Hungarian, Inuit, Norwegian, Gaelic, Portuguese, Caribbean Spanish, and Sanskrit expressions. Some languages even have several of them, and quite a lot of them are melancholy or bittersweet or heartwarming expressions that are well worth reading about and reflecting on.
I was particularly surprised in reading this book at just how Nathanish many of the untranslatable words were. Now, it will surprise few people that I found this to be the case given the way that I easily identify with what I read, but a few samples will demonstrate. At random, I turned to the page where the Tulu word “Karelu” meant “the mark left on the skin by wearing something tight,” a problem I commonly have with my socks. This is a very Nathanish problem. So also it is Nathanish to do something in a Meraki fashion, which in Greek means to pour oneself wholeheartedly into an activity, or to give a glaswen, which in Welsh is a “blue smile,” or a rather sarcastic and mocking smile, also something that is very characteristic of my wit. And so it goes. Even my vacant stare into the unknown has a word, namely the expression “boketto” in the Japanese language, a vacant gaze into the distance without thinking of anything in specific. If you are a person whose actions and thoughts and feelings are characteristically untranslatable as mine are, this is definitely a book where you will find a lot to relate to, and where the word doesn’t fit it is often very interesting to have a word for something anyway.