Translating Love: An Exploration of Love and Language

By February 15, 2013Writing about Writing

On the week of this most auspicious festival of amorousness, that is, International Writing Center Week plus Valentine’s Day, I feel it’s important to note the sheer pervasiveness of “love” itself, and its virtually global ubiquity. Putting aside for a moment the nauseating consumerism on which it thrives, and the bizarre and brutal circumstances of its original observance, we can all recognize that Valentine’s Day is a day for “love” and “lovers”. But what is “love” truly? (This, perhaps). And how does it translate across cultures?

The ancient Greeks, for instance, have five distinct words for “love” of varying degree and character; most commonly Agape (ideal love), and Eros (physical love). But also Phillia: (loyalty) a rational love of the mind, Storge: a natural, parental affection, and Xenia, which is essentially hospitality.

Even French, supposedly the “language of love” is slightly more limited in its variety than that, and boasts only a few different terms; it often relies heavily on context. I have already demonstrated the fairly limited scope of expressing the word “love” in English (by my sheer repetition), but then English, like French, has always relied on things like context and inflection to lend such abstract notions the proper gravity and emotional charge.

Many cultures find a middle ground between these two extremes, and rely on both variety and context to communicate love in all of its many aspects. In Japanese for instance both 愛 (ai) and 恋 (koi) translate roughly to love. But if one examines their general usage it becomes clear that while koi expresses “romantic” love, it can also be an unrequited longing or desire, whereas ai is a more “pure” love; koi suggests desiring, but ai giving.

But let us not ignore idiomatic language as a valid outlet for expressions of love. After all, idioms are a valid and culturally significant method of communication in any language.

I’ll admit I’m quite taken with the Arabic expression يقبرني (Ya’aburnee) lit. “You bury me”, which suggests that having to live without the person would be so excruciatingly painful that you hope to expire first.

English is not without its idioms for feelings of love either. If you’ve ever heard someone described as “head over heels” in love with someone, you’ve probably been quite legitimately confused. Isn’t our head always over our heels? Fair point, and of course the original phrase was “heels over head” and is thought to have suggested the action of performing somersaults, or the feeling of being positively upside-down; a fairly accurate description of the sensation of helpless love.

A similar Russian idiom, По уши влюбиться (po yshi vlubitsya), translates to roughly the same in English, but more literally means “fall in love up to your ears”, implying a sensation of almost total immersion in love.

Even if you’re not a hopeless romantic (like me), noticing the ways in which longing, desire, and love are expressed across cultures is a fascinating and powerful thing. But on this week of all weeks, it pays to remember that love is, essentially, a universal language.

Works Consulted

Love Idioms in Any Language