Lost in Translation
Prepare to be amazed, for there's a collection here of ‘‘foreign words so rich and layered in meaning that the English language, despite its own unusual vocabulary (whatever that means) renders them practically untranslatable.’’ Except that the compiler, one Ella Frances Sanders, despite over-egging each lexical pudding, manages to make the meanings clear enough. Sanders makes Susan Polis Schultz sound hard-boiled:
The words in this book may be answers to questions you didn’t know to ask, and perhaps some you did. They might pinpoint emotions and experiences that seemed elusive or indescribable, or they may cause you to remember a person you’d forgotten. If you take something away from this book … let it be the realization or affirmation that you are human, (it's easily forgotten, after all) that you are fundamentally, intrinsically bound to every single person on the planet with language and feelings.
Writing her review, Maria Popova is as rapt as Sanders. She wants to know '...what happens when words are kept apart by too much unbridgeable otherness?' Anybody want to take that one? I haven't a clue what she means, so let's move on. On the Japanese word komorebi meaning ‘sunlight filtered through the trees’ Popova goes all precious on us:
These words invariably prompt you to wonder… whether a culture lacking a word for the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees is also one lacking the ennobling capacity for such quality of presence, for the attentive and appreciative stillness this very act requires.
Yawn. You can appreciate the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees whether you call it 'komorebi' or ‘the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees’. But amateur language fanciers are usually more impressed by words than by phrases, subscribing to the fallacy that one word always equals one meaning, and that if language A lacks a word found in language B, then that concept is lost to speakers of A. The fact is that one meaning potentially gives rise to many words and phrases, and this Japanese word is not a single block of meaning like table or milk. Ko-more-bi can be analysed as ‘tree-leak-sun’, i.e., ‘sun leaking through the trees’, a phenomenon frequently observed and appreciated by people who live where there are trees, whatever they choose to call it.
The Yiddish word Luftmensch ‘air person’ is one of the more interesting words in the collection, because it immediately brought to my mind the English ‘airhead’. But beware connotation: the English word means a person with not a lot up top, whereas the Yiddish means an impractical dreamer. I think connotation might be a bit too prosaic for Sanders: she’s for awe, life-affirming interconnectedness and umm, stuff like that. In search of these, she often homes in on a single use of a common word and presents it as an amazing affirmation of the fundamental intrinsic human bonds and what-not that she’s blathering on about. I submit that it would not be unreasonable to suppose that the rest of the words in her book are as easy to demystify as komorebi and the following five:
We are told that Arabic gurfa means ‘the amount of water that can be held in one hand’. Ah! Close your eyes; let us meditate a while upon the unutterable preciousness of a single handful of life-giving water to a desert dweller, dot-dot-dot. Actually, gurfa means a room, cell or compartment. It also means 'a handful' - of anything. The 'handful of water' business is just a bit of window dressing. My thanks to Itizaz from Saudi Arabia for her help here.
Norwegian for ‘anything and everything that you can put on a slice of bread’. Gosh, how ingenious! Anything and everything! Cheese, ham, clothes pegs, paper money, dog turds, lego bricks, marmalade, socks... Break it down into its components and you get på 'upon', and legg 'add'. Wouldn't ‘topping’ do nicely as a translation?
Swedish tretår apparently means ‘second refill of coffee’. Isn't that just awesome!? Sooo different from 'would you like a drop more coffee?' Calm down: tretår is analysable simply as ‘third drop’ (tår is cognate with English 'tear') and thus nothing so flabbergastiferous as Sanders would have it. Is it only for coffee, or can you have a tretår of any other beverage? Don't see why not.
More Swedish, this time 'gathering together to talk and take a break from everyday routines, usually drinking coffee and eating pastries, either at a café or at home, often for hours on end.' Or more succinctly, 'taking a coffee break' or 'meeting for coffee', those uniquely Swedish institutions. Swedes called coffee 'Kaffi' in the 19th century and only mildly interesting thing about fika is that it's back-slang. Sanders makes no mention of this, probably because she doesn't know and anyway, it's hard to gush over back-slang.
Commuovere is Italian for ‘to move’ in the emotional sense and it’s cognate with the English word. ‘La musica mi commuove’ = ‘the music moves me’. How did it sneak into the list?
So the irritating thing about all these 'untranslatable' words is that they are in quite a few instances nothing so remarkable as Sanders would paint them, and the above is but a skimming of the words that are oversold in her book. Then there's the new-agey, feel-good sentimentality about the whole project that a more rigorous approach would have dispelled - and might admittedly have harmed sales as well, if not made the entire thing pointless.
If Ella’s offerings mostly leave me cold, what fascinates me? Well, I suppose nerdy stuff like etymology. How the English word ‘fee’ is related to the German Vieh, meaning ‘cattle’, and this because cattle once were currency. How the English word ‘gift’ is related to German Gift, which means not prezzy, but ‘poison’. What’s denoted in each case is something given: in English, bestowed, in German, administered: a dose. The English ‘dose’ derives from Greek δόσις meaning a 'giving', a prescribed amount. How German Zaun, meaning ‘fence’, became English ‘town’, the area surrounded by a fence. And how Flur, meaning ‘hallway’ came to be English ‘floor’, part of a hallway. How Arabic words pop up in Greek and Albanian via Turkish, having passed into Turkish through Islam. There’s a Greek word μουσαφίρης, (musafiris) meaning 'guest'. In Albanian, it’s mysafir. (y like German ü) I asked some Saudi students a while ago if there was an Arabic word that sounded similar, and there is: mosafer, meaning traveler. The shift in meaning from ‘traveler’ to ‘guest’ probably reflects the old belief that every traveler was holy, and to be welcomed with hospitality, lest he return with his mates and kick shit out of you. These interrelated, shifting meanings are, for my money, far more interesting than Ella's collection of cutesy greetings cards.
I don't deny that there are cleverly encapsulated meanings in all languages, but we can appreciate them without getting all misty-eyed about unbridgeable otherness and the intrinsic bonds of our common humanity and all that bollocks, and without picking on a single use or collocation out of many, thus loading them with meaning they never carried. Just two of my favourite examples here, both from American Yiddish. A sharopnikel is any small object, such as a dummy, teething ring, rattle or blanket, shoved into a kid’s mouth or hands to stop it grizzling. This is ‘shut up’ collapsed into ‘sharop’ with –nik suffixed to make a noun, and the diminutive –el tacked onto the end. The same nominalising suffix appears on alrightnik: a vulgar, self-made man, a show-off with money and no taste. The word hardly seems to require any explanation.
So what does it mean to say that something is 'lost in translation'? Individual words can often be glossed or paraphrased, but less tangible aspects of language, the sort of things we might call feel, character, flavour, are buggers to put across. Greeks frequently address one another as παιδί μου /pe'ði mu/ literally 'my child'. This is the height of colloquial familiarity, but translated into English it has a benign, ecclesiastical ring which is utterly the wrong note to strike. Then there are the appelatives ρε /re/ βρε /vre/ and μωρέ /mo're/ which sometimes get translated as ‘oi!’ and ‘hey, you!’ but are usually best omitted. If you call a man or boy αγόρι μου /a'γorΙ mu/ ‘my boy’ in Greek, this again expresses easy familiarity. Call someone ‘my boy’ in English and you sound like a Victorian schoolmaster. Παιδί μου, αγόρι μου, ρε and μωρέ are common features of colloquial Greek, contributors to the feel, character and flavour of everyday speech, and it's pretty much impossible to capture them in English translation. I have a translation of Kazantzakis’s novel Zorba where these terms are rendered into such dated Britishisms as ‘my boy’ 'old chap' and ‘dear fellow’, making Zorbas sound like Mister Chips, and here we see, μωρή Ella, βρε Maria, what 'lost in translation' really means.
Rosten, L. (1971) The Joys of Yiddish Reading: Penguin Books.
Sanders, E.F. (2014) Lost in Translation: an illustrated compendium of untranslatable words from around the world Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.