The untranslatable and culturally specific
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I love the words that refer to a certain emotion or state of mind, that are untranslatable because they are so specific to the culture that produced them. For example:
Saudade (Portuguese): A sense of longing for places and people left behind
Inat (Serbian, and also, I've heard, Urdu): The sort of contrariness that leads to acting against your own best interest, just because someone else told you not to
Hüzün (Turkish): The feeling of melancholy that is felt collectively by the residents of a city that has been the capital of three empires, but is now marginalized and impoverished (see Istanbul: memories and the city by Orhan Pamuk)
All of these words are deeply associated with some aspect of their native culture. There are a lot of words that are not easily translated into other languages (in fact, there's a whole book on them, They have a word for it!) but not all of those words fit my category.
Anybody know any other good examples?
"Inat" isn't untranslatable at all, it means "spite". "Iz inata"= "out of spite". Even the specific usage that you mention isn't exclusively Serbian (as neither is the word, common to all YU variants)--Italians, for instance, have "dispetto"--same meaning, same possible usage (in Dalmatian, "dišpet").
Perhaps you're thinking of the verb derived from the noun, "inatiti se"? I can't think immediately of an English translation for that.
I don't speak Portugese, but based on your definition Saudade sounds a lot like homesickness.
2> I had considered "spite" as a translation for inat, but for some reason I rejected it, don't remember why. You could consider an action to be "spiteful" because it mean-spiritedly harms another person, not necessarily the person who takes the action. Could you say that was zbog inata?
As far as YU variants, I might have called it Serbo-Croatian, but I know better now. ;)
3> It's similar to homesickness, but you can have saudade for a person. If you were to say in English, "I'm homesick for you," that would sound figurative (and unbearably sappy), but I believe you can say it in Portuguese.
I recently learned a new one, Wasta (Gulf Arabic): an extreme level of clout or influence, generally connected to family social status, that allows someone to get whatever they want and avoid all possible consequences for their actions.
My initial question stands ... any other examples?
"Saudade" may not quite be homesickness, but isn't it effectively the same as nostalgia?
And what's the etymology of "huzun"? (umlauts omitted because of time constraints). I'd be surprised if it didn't derive from a word with a broader (and easier to translate) meaning.
#5, yes, in German it would be. I guess that would be "longing" in English, but he includes longing in the definition of the Portugese word so maybe Saudade is more than longing, more than Sehnsucht even. I long for...habe Sehnsucht nach... is there a portugese preposition that goes with Saudade. What is it that differentiates Saudade from simple longing or Sehnsucht? It's clear that I was offbase with homesickness, which is too specific.
#6 "Nice" is untranslatable? Is there some depth of meaning to the word that I've missed?
I've only ever encountered saudade as describing a mood, like "the blues", without a specific object (feeling it for something).
This looks interesting:
Quant à la suidade (aujourd'hui saudade), c'est un sentiment du cœur qui vient de la sensualité et non pas de la raison et qui peut entraîner la tristesse et le deuil.
#6 "Nice" is untranslatable?
Yes, at least in the languages I speak. At best you can translate one shade, i.e. approximately. Usually as "kind" or "pretty" etc.
"Niceness" is even worse.
Of course, this is very common with words describing abstractions.
#11 - I once knew a guy who used "nice" to describe women he didn't know, to which I always responded, "how do you know she's nice, you don't even know her?"
I guess nice varies, too, with whether you're talking about a person (in which case I have always taken it to mean kind) or a thing.
7> I guess I was exaggerating, but not much.
According to Orhan Pamuk, the melancholy of Istanbul is huzun, a Turkish word whose Arabic root (it appears five times in the Koran) denotes a feeling of deep spiritual loss but also a hopeful way of looking at life, “a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating.” For the Sufis, huzun is the spiritual anguish one feels at not being close enough to God; for Saint John of the Cross, this anguish causes the sufferer to plummet so far down that his soul will, as a result, soar to its divine desire. Huzun is therefore a sought-after state, and it is the absence, not the presence, of huzun that causes the sufferer distress. “It is the failure to experience huzun,” Pamuk says, “that leads him to feel it.” According to Pamuk, moreover, huzun is not a singular preoccupation but a communal emotion, not the melancholy of an individual but the black mood shared by millions.
From the Cambridge Forecast Group blog
#13 - Honestly, to me, it sounds as though "huzun" is being used as a term of art. It's not so much that it can't be translated into another language - rather, it is being used to stand for a group of ideas that are complex even in its native tongue. I'm thinking here of something like the way that Sartre uses the word "anguish" (or whatever the French word he uses may be). At root, it's a relatively commonplace part of the language, but he, and other existentialists, extend its meaning so that it may be used as shorthand for a much more complex idea.
Saudade has its own Wikipedia page. Personally, I think the author(s) tries too hard to claim particular senses for it and English nostalgia to make them seem to have less overlap than they really do. Why not claim that nostalgia is untranslatable because it covers both the old schoolyard and Grateful Dead cover bands?
It's a basic fact of translation that words don't line up perfectly and one has to weigh the context is choosing the right correspondence. This is just as true, if not more so, for green, go and apple.
The usual reaction when meeting the word Schadenfreude is, “Oh, so that's what that's called,” not “German sure is weird.”
When concepts really are culturally specific, one can borrow the word, like Potlatch, or make something up that will then be understood to correspond, like tea ceremony.
I'm as much a fan of these word lists as anyone, but I think one has to be careful how deeply one interprets them.
#10 - "Nice" made me think of "geben." Such a simple verb with more to give than "to give."
"Nice" is really a fascinating word. Historically, it comes from Latin nescius "ignorant." The Oxford English Dictionary says:
The semantic development of this word from ‘foolish, silly’ to ‘pleasing’ is unparalleled in Latin or in the Romance languages. The precise sense development in English is unclear. N.E.D. (1906) s.v. notes that ‘in many examples from the 16th and 17th cent. it is difficult to say in what particular sense the writer intended it to be taken’.
Over the years, it has meant both "proper" and "lascivious," "extraordinary" and "trivial," and now its current sense of "aesthetically pleasing," as well as the intensifier "nice and —" and the interjection "Nice one!" are frequently used ironically.
So, it means, or has meant, pretty much everything, which is why my high school English teacher told me not to use it at all. :)
Often it's not so much that the words are "untranslatable", as their usage, the context. "L'ennui" is often adequately translated as "boredom", but if you leave it in French in an English text, suddenly it gains a different meaning (or another dimension).
I should add, in regard with "inat", that in this sense Yorick was right--that particular use (self-damaging stubborness etc.) is difficult (or maybe impossible) to encapsulate in a single word in English. "Spite" covers some of "inat"'s meanings (like "pleasant" covers some possible uses of "nice"), but, you know, the slip is showing.
There is a special word for malicious spite, spite turned against others, in Yugoslav variants-- "pakost". I suppose "malice" would be the closest approximation...
Btw, I'm just reading and enjoying immensely William Gass's Reading Rilke : reflections on the problems of translation--highly recommended for people who love thinking about words. Or translating. Or Rilke...
Another good book about translation is If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents by Gregory Rabassa, the translator of much Latin American (Spanish and Portuguese) literature.
I'm convinced that no word is untranslatable. However, there are many words in many languages which are difficult to translate consistently, especially with a single word or phrase (see the famous mahlinapatapai (sp?)).
A few books have been published about these so called untranslatables. They provide some interesting words, but by the underlying descriptions show that they are, in fact, translatable...
"Saudade" sounds like the Italian "nostalgia" -- which in turn has overtones of "homesickness", "longing", and the English use of "nostalgia" (which is narrower and more specific than its original Italian meaning).
Inat, if it is indeed like the italian "dispetto", corresponds exactly to "spite" in an expression like "doing something out of spite" (rather than "meaning spite" in a one-to-one relationship).
(I don't speak Portugues or Serbian, but I am a native Italian speaker and a translator)
#6: Yes, "nice" is really really hard to translate into Italian, and I bet into other languages too!
I agree with #22 that no word, probably, is untranslatable. A lot of words cannot be translated with a single word, though, even when taken in a specific context.
And then, as with "nostalgia", there are a lot of words that enter another language with a more specific meaning than they had in the original language -- or sometimes an entirely different meaning.
The word "smoking" in Italian refers not to a smoking jacket, but to a tuxedo. The word "body" in Italian means a leotard (from "body suit") (They are also pronounced differently from English -- but then nostalgia is pronounced differently in Italian too...) And "mouse" in Italian is only a computer input device, never a rodent... (but it's pronounced almost the same, for once).
The one I don't get in Italian: how did "slip" come to mean men's underwear?
Maybe from French (same for Smoking). The French love to take English words and give them meaning they never had to begin with.
example: "pressing" is European French from dry cleaner.
Or there's the German "Ostalgie" - the longing for a return to the atmosphere of East Germany.
It's mostly difficult to translate because of the cultural knowledge that is necessary to understand the word.
Interesting thread... and #26 Wilsteed, you've really nailed the issue. Cultural knowledge makes all the difference in understanding language. The nuances of meaning come from multitudes of experiences that refine the meaning in the user's mind. It's not so much that a word is untranslatable, it's just that there with translation there is comes a shift, however slight, in meaning. I contend that you cannot fully understand how a person thinks, or understand a culture, without understanding the language. It defines the concepts and their significance.
Thanks for the tip on They Have a Word for It. I look forward to getting it.
>28 I see in my dictionary that there is a word "theemuts", but I've never seen one in all the years I've been in Holland - I think it's the object that's missing, not the word! Come to think of it, I haven't seen very many teapots, which might explain it.
#29 Strange. Outside of the Netherlands, the Dutch are well known for their tea cozies. Ask anyone on the street around here what comes to mind when they think of the Netherlands, they always say the same thing: tulips, windmills, wooden shoes, hashish, and tea cozies. They're very popular as hats among people who have large pointy heads and high foreheads, for whom unfortunate geometric circumstances make actual human headwear impractical.
According to my dictionary, it's from the idea of "something that slips on easily". And it doesn't just mean men's underwear: it's also women's panties, men's swimming trunks shaped like y-fronts and the bottom half of a bikini. Any garment of that shape, basically.
...and of course it changes pronunciation. It follows standard Italian rules, so the initial sound becomes "z" (and, slightly more subtly, the vowel changes because Italian doesn't have that sound). Zleep.
Funnily enough, this is a case where a foreign word is imported for something that already has a perfectly viable name in the target language -- two in fact, by a trick of Italian grammar: "mutandina" or "mutandine" mean exactly the same as (the Italian version of) "slip".
25: The French love to take English words and give them meaning they never had to begin with.
Well, in Italian "latte" has nothing to do with coffee. It means milk.
"Confetti" are sugar-coated almonds, which might hurt the newlyweds if they were thrown at them. Instead, we throw rice at the newlyweds, and they in turn distribute confetti in artistic little "bonboniere".
"Casino" is a brothel (and figuratively a mess, chaos). If you want to gamble you're advised to look for a Casinò.
Inferno means hell, and doesn't necessarily imply fire.
Solo means "only" or "alone". A solo by a singer is un assolo; a solo singer is un solista.
Fiasco is a type of wine bottle. (The English meaning does exist, but as a secondary, figurative meaning -- with slightly different connotations.)
Maestro is a teacher, most commonly in a primary school. (The English meaning also exists, as a special case).
My favourite though is vendetta, which in Italian simply means revenge. What in English is called a vendetta, in Italian is called a "faida" -- a Sardinian word :-)
"Saudade" is in Portugal an accepted even estimated form of longing, sadness that probably has to do with a collective form of highly accepted mourning for people, who were lost to the sea. Such an event could hit a village or a family every day and was part of worklife. I know for alpine Switzerland, where people die in avalanches because their homes are built on steep mountain slopes, that a collective form of (unspoken) emotional communication is built around such a threat and possible loss, that is part of every day life.
>34: I thought "saudade" was similar to "Weltschmerz" or even "Sehnsucht"? That would be a different feeling than the one you're describing though. It is kind of hard to put into words any kind of feeling that has to do with longing, especially if there isn't a literal translation. And if it's specific to a culture or region.
I don't live on a steep mountain slope and there are no avalanches where I live in Switzerland so I don't know if there's a word for what you're describing.
I did not say every Swiss lives on a slope. I live on a very harmless hillside myself.
I speak for regions like the Maderanertal or the Fermeltal, that should actually be evacuated in the winter, like other small villages in the Valais. There is an ethnological research on the communication among different members of families working in dangerous situations in the Alps, that shows an unspoken attentivness and alertness and a certain fatalism towards mountain hazards that is unique.
" saudade" today is used in the way you mention and is part of musical art, but it is one theory, that it is rooted in the experience of common loss of fishermen.
Thanks! I wasn't sure if I had the definition for saudade mixed up with something else.
I know the feeling you're describing for people in the mountains. I haven't experienced it myself but my father grew up in the mountains and I know they have a different sense of community, and not only because those towns are usually small.
Very interesting topic!
Here one of my favourite history books. It is a history of emotions, and it shows that emotions have a changing meaning and estimation through the European history.Emotionalität. Zur Geschichte der Gefühle Claudia Benthien. What I know, the book has no English translation yet. It is a history of emotions.
William M. Reddy made lectures (I found at google) about the worldwide history of emotions. On his booklist he recommends Stearns, Peter N., American Cool: Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style. New York University Press, 1994*. Does anyone know this book? The word "cool" has been adopted to Swiss German, and is almost used as frequently as the word "nice" in English, the speaker usually referrs to something that is adding more understated value to something he likes. I ask the Americans and English among you, what is "cool"?
Diwan, first, lest i forget -- the book sounds interesting. i will tell japanese publisher friends and maybe i'll be able to read it in japanese if no one englishes it.
The saudade for people lost at sea seems perfect for what yorick was driving at. If it were for something less specific you would find many many languages claiming their sort of longing is unique (the swedes are particularly big on boasting about such a word=feeling only they can feel though i cannot recall it at present).
I have one for you and it is "Paling" -- i read of it in geertz or benedict or ktut tantri re Bali and it is a dizziness, lack of energy, terror, i guess a reeling panic attack would sum it up, experienced when someone living in a village where the directions anyone knows at all times are seaward or mountainward, leave by car for the first time and end up unable to tell which direction they face. They demand to have the car stopped and go outside climb a hill and try to figure it out.
these things are all relative = japanese has no word like "to miss" and english has no word like natsukashii, which is uttered when someone sees or hears of something familiar which has not been seen or heard of in quite a while and feels how people feel in such a situation, a mild elation and if it is not present, nostalgia. You will find plenty of examples in my books with thousands of translated haiku because i include the original and explain what cannot be translated -- anyway, great idea for a topic, if you get enough and they are good enough, we may have a book to make.
The relation between the parents of the bride and the parents of the groom. The mother of your child's spouse is your makhetenester, the father is you mahuten.
In English, your spouses parents are your mother and father in law, but you wont have a markhatenester till your kids get married.
I dont know of any english word that covers the territory.
>41: What language is that?
In Italian, the wife's parents and the husband's parents are "consuoceri" to each other -- literally "co-parents-in-law" (suoceri = parents-in-law). I really don't think there's an English word for it.
Suppose I can add the classic Swedish example, "lagom", meaning the perfect amount of something.
"sciupata" is quite a visual Italian word that's hard to convey with one word in English--it's means everything from having the blahs, to looking pale, to feeling not that good.
I word I think I may have picked up in Mexico...
It means "losseness" or "laxness" (is that an English word?) Slack. The opposite of running a tight ship. Ay! Que flojera! "what a bunch of slackers!" is as close as I can get in English, but that doesnt quite cover it because slackers are people and "flojera" is more a state of being, or existential condition I think.
Great sound. Reminds me vaguely of "Flux" or "Fluxion" but maybe thats a "false friend"
Another very useful word is "agita" which I spoze is Italian. Literally "upset stomach" as I understand it, but it seems to be used more widely as anything disturbing or unsettling to ones peace of mind.
I wanted to say "hozho". Hozho is a Navajo word which (they tell me) means peace of mind, "centered" ness, maybe even something like what the greeks meant by "ataraxia" (calm self possesion). It may also mean or be related to "beauty". Or maybe its the effect that being surrounded by beauty would have on one.
Agita is when your hozho is disturbed.
Dont nobody around here speak no english?
If my definitions are off, I guess that shows you
-- a Japanese closing phrase used in both converstion and in a letter when one hopes the other party will help us with something is utterly impossible to translate, so i just use it as is when I think the other party knows some Japanese or would enjoy looking it up.
"I'm counting on you" is too pushy.
"Thanks ahead of time for whatever you may be able to do" is too long.
Translating, I usually dropped it entirely and added a "I would be grateful if you could" and other such things to the first part of the letter.
I think it's not necessarily so much the sentence itself as to the way formal letters are structured in both languages (not that it makes it any more translatable).
Maybe the overall structure is different, too, but yoroshiku onegaishimasu is untransleatable as a phrase and, shortened, may even be used in completely informal speech: yoroshiku, ne!
>18 "that particular use (self-damaging stubborness etc.) is difficult (or maybe impossible) to encapsulate in a single word in English" A word that comes close to your specification is "bloody-minded". But that's strictly a trans-pond locution. Cis-pond you might hear it at Harvard.
>48 Both Fogies have taught English in Japan and have been asked countless times how to say "Itadakimasu" in English. Our best answer is you don't say it. If you feel panicky about having to suppress a verbal motor habit, some casual compliment of the food like "Oh, that looks good" will have to do--but it isn't the same thing at all. "I humbly receive your bounty" just isn't the sort of thing that's said in English.
While we're speaking of Japanese, Roy Miller pointed out years ago in The Japanese language that there are the same sort of cultural boundaries within a language. He pointed out that if a Japanese woman visits another Japanese woman at home, when the visitor is seated in a room with a view of the garden (as is invariable practice) the two will at once launch into a long spiel in which the visitor exclaims at the delightfulness of it, compliments its artistic design, commiserates on how much trouble it must be to keeping lookin so beautiful, yada yada, while the host replies with a barrage and smoke screen of self-deprecation. He points out that if you ask how all this verbal fountain of women's language would be rephrased in men's language, you would have to conclude that men just wouldn't say that. The male visitor would admire the garden silently, saying at most something like, "Nice garden" to which the host's reply would be a sublinguistic grunt.
48> That would be "thanks in advance". It even has it's own acronym, TIA, that you might put at the bottom of an e-mail.
>48, 53 There's an important use of Yoroshiku onegaishimasu that seems unbelievable to westerners living in Japan: during election campaigns, candidates ride through residential neighborhoods in zillion-watt sound trucks braying their names and "Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu." Sometimes one will mention party affiliation or name the office sought, or perhaps utter a slogan, but often all you hear is, "Tanaka Ichiro de gozaimasu. Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu."
The Finnish word sisu is impossible to translate in a simple way because it means a strange combination of courage, determination, toughness, willpower and perhaps even spite. In From Finland, with love, it is compared to a turbo charger in a car: extra power that becomes available when the "main" power gets maxed out. (In case you're wondering, no, I don't know anything about turbo chargers). Another example from the book is a real-life example: falling on one's face in an olympic final for 10 000m, thus getting a "sisu-boost" and winning the gold medal with a new world record (Lasse Virén 1972).
Whenever it's used in English contexts, even by Finns, the translation is often reduced to mere courage or something similar. It's a shame because in the above examples, and other cases, it isn't remotely the essence of the word.
55> Sisu is indeed a tricky one...I guess the closest English word is that "determination" and it is not the same thing. Or maybe "spite" as a positive thing.
Another tricky Finnish cultural world is kaiho, which I guess is somewhat close to that Portuguese saudade; it means kind of resigned yearning, wishing emotionally for something which secretly is known or at least suspected to be impossible. And can apply for places, people, life situations...sort of "if only" wistful thinking but more emotional.
And like saudade, kaiho is an important ingredient in Finnish popular music.
A non-Finn, or a person who is not familiar with the feeling, will never understand e.g. this song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOAUbozgri4
#50> Keigu, I think good examples from Japanese are the tatemae/honne pair. Tatemai usually gets translated as “public face” or “façade,” but those have an element of fakiness that completely misses the Japanese feeling of properly fulfilling a particular role or duty. And “true feelings” for honne doesn’t get the real intimacy of the word in Japanese. I think you have to be in the culture for a while to get these concepts.
First, Fogies, I too have heard those election "yoroshiku onegaishimasu -- good god, you have lived through the same bs I have! But, in personal correspondence, you must admit, it is a pretty phrase to have. The initial egs for this topic made me think of swedish claims re. a certain sort of feeling.
Larxol, Rodrigues the translator over four-hundred years ago already mentioned not two (the usual tatemae/honne) but three faces, but thanks, anyway. The question is not whether one getsw thw concepts -- i was there 25 yrs -- but how to translate...
English, just does not have a match for what i mentioned, period.
#6 and #9: "nice" is pretty untranslatable because it is used so many ways that different uses would require different meanings. There are many such words. "do" in its many uses in English is even worse, in part because quite often it simply vanishes. I fought an often-losing battle with beginning German students for many years, trying to break them of sticking a German verb into the helping verb positions of "do" in English into a German sentence and making it incomprehensible.
John McWhorter goes on a great tirade about the word do in his Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.
As a native Portuguese speaker, but from Brazil, not Portugal, I feel comfortable to talk about 'saudade' in its current meanings (at least in my country).
As said before by #1, 'Saudade' is felt when someone misses people or places.
For people, it's almost the same of saying "I miss you so much" or "Ich vermisse dich" or "Te extraño tanto".
For places, it's almost the same for "homesickness", "Heimweh" (not "Weltschmerz"!).
But you can also simply be in some situation that leads your thoughts back to dear people/places and just think "Que saudade..."
I think the difference consists in the fact that 'saudade' is a mix of lyric suffering (due to the lack of people or places) and a warm feeling about how good it was in that place or in company of that person. You feel nostalgic or better saying, sad and happy at the same time, as you bring back all memories regarding the longing situation. For that reason this word is so used by poets, both in Brazil and in Portugal.
I think it's not exactly the same as nostalgia, because I understand nostalgia as more about how people remember of some lost good time, which is not the same as the current time. I mean, the missing object is everything related to that period, not exactly a person or a place.
Some Africans who were brought to Brazil in the colonial era to serve as sclaves used to have a 'banzo', which is kind of a homesickness, longing for the mother Africa, but that leaded to grief, as if it was a sickness.
#8, the preposition is 'de': 'saudade da minha família', 'saudade de meu país'
A Brazilian Portuguese word that seems to be untranslatable (in a single word, that is) into English is cafuné. According the the authoritative Brazilian Portuguese Houaiss Dictionary, its original meaning was "clicks produced with the nails on the head of another person as if one was picking lice." Fortunately, the meaning has now shifted, at least in the part of Brazil that I live in, to mean the tender or affectionate running of one’s fingers through someone’s hair.
It's a lovely word, and I don't think English has an equivalent one. I would think it would need at least a few English words to express the same meaning.
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