The Beauty of being Lost in Translation

While I was hunting around online looking for poems to collect for National Poetry Month, I came across a fascinating article called “20 Awesomely Untranslatable Words from Around the World.” Despite the 250,000+ words currently in use in the English language, there are just certain areas where we fall short in having one concise word to describe an emotion, action, or some other experience that seems so common. Reading over the list of selected words in this article, I could relate in some way to every single one.

The words on the list describe things that are everyday, but not mundane — for example, there is the Inuit word Iktsuarpok which means “to go outside to check if anyone is coming.” They also describe emotions that are hard to put into words regardless of what language you’re speaking — like the word Mamihlapinatapei in Yagan, an indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego, which means “the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.” I find words like that to be beautifully specific. And who hasn’t been in that situation?

While English may be notorious in some ways for its wide array of vocabulary words, after reading this article I wonder if we are still lacking in that department. Is it better to have more words with very specific meanings, or more ways to describe those specific meanings? Are we missing out on something here because English doesn’t have a word for “the feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country” like in French?

There is a great amount of truth to the idea that language shapes how we think, so maybe English makes up for these deficiencies in its own way. After all, I’ve heard that most other languages do not have equivalents for the English word “to achieve” — they may have “to succeed” or “to reach a goal,” but there is something about our understanding of the word achieve that speaks to the American values of rugged individualism and determination. (Spanish, for example, has about four different verbs that touch on different ways to achieve something.) There also isn’t a good Spanish equivalent for the word “awkward,” and that’s a word that seems to apply to almost any situation. So maybe English has some gaps, but the more you dig into language the more you can find little surprises that make up for it.

I leave you with some of English’s own weirdly specific words:

pauciloquent (adj.) – uttering a few words; brief in speech

selcouth (adj.) – unfamiliar, rare, strange, marvelous, wonderful

valetudinarian (n.) – a sickly or weak person, especially one who is constantly and morbidly concerned with his or her health

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Liz L. says:

    I love works that can’t be translated into other languages! This reminds me of a post I read over on Mental Floss that lists words that can’t be found in English:

    Pana Po’o (Hawaiian)
    “Hmm, now where did I leave those keys?” he said, pana po’oing. It means to scratch your head in order to help you remember something you’ve forgotten

    Kummerspeck (German)
    Excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally, grief bacon.

    https://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/94828