My stop on the blog tour for this incredible story is two fold! Firstly, I am pleased to share a guest post from author Sophie Cameron about languages and several words that could be deemed “untranslatable”. A thoroughly enjoyable read. In my next post, I will share my review!
Words that are difficult to translate into other languages by Sophie Cameron
My new book Away With Words is about Gala, an 11-year-old girl from Catalonia who struggles with learning English after moving to Scotland. It’s partly inspired by my own experience of learning languages – I’ve studied about 15 over the years (and unfortunately forgotten most of them, too!) so I’m well acquainted with the highs, lows, joys and frustrations of finding your way around a new grammar and vocabulary.
One of the most interesting parts of learning a new language, in my opinion, is coming across words that can’t easily be translated into your own. They often appear online in lists and articles describing them as “untranslatable”, but I don’t think that’s quite correct. As the linguist David Shariatmadari argues in his excellent book, Don’t Believe a Word, the idea that a foreign concept is impossible to translate can actually be rather othering and lead us to see its speakers as stereotypes:
The concept of “untranslatable words” preserves the idea that the world can never be fully mapped out and expunged of mystery. That’s a comforting thought. It keeps alive the possibility of escape—of something surviving far beyond our everyday experiences. It is also an easy replacement for the hard tasks of empathy and understanding. […] It puts them at one remove, which fits with the strange stories we hear about [other people]: that they’re by turns esoteric, warlike, fanatical, eccentric and primitive. It also saves us having to learn what the circumstances of life might actually be like there.
I see Shariatmadari’s point. That said, I’ve certainly found words in other languages that encapsulate ideas more neatly or succinctly than in English, or just with a little more charm. Here are a few of my favourites:
Sobretaula (Catalan): This is the name for the time spent lingering and chatting around a table after you’ve finished a meal – a very Spanish pastime, which also exists as sobremesa in Spanish and Gallego and bazkalondo in Basque.
Trepverter (Yiddish): This literally means “staircase words” and refers to the common phenomenon of thinking of the perfect reply too late – very similar to l’esprit de l’escalier in French.
Mamihlapinatapei (Yaghan): This rather long word refers to a silent look between two people who both want to initiate something but are reluctant to do so. It comes from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, and is considered the world’s must succinct word by the Guinness Book of World Records.
소복소복 (Korean): Korean is full of great onomatopoeic and mimetic words. Lots of them have equivalents in English, but others aren’t so easy to match – such as 소복소복 (sobok sobok), which refers to the image of snow falling and piling up.
Aspaldiko (Basque): Basque is a language isolate, which means it’s unconnected to any other languages and has a unique vocabulary. Aspaldiko literally translates as “long ago” but refers to the joy of meeting up with a good friend after a long time, rather like the French retrouvailles. There are lots of restaurants named Aspaldiko in the Basque Country, as they provide a good spot to do so.
Ilunga (Bantu): This once won an award for being the world’s most difficult word to translate. It refers to a person who is willing to forgive abuse the first time, tolerate it the second time, but not a third time – a little like the English “three strikes and you’re out”, though it apparently denotes more progression and different feelings with each “strike”.
Yaourter (French): Literally meaning “to yoghurt”, yaourter or chanter en yaourt refers to someone’s attempt to sing along to a song in a foreign language that they can’t speak fluently, making up words as they go along – something I do a lot of when I listen to K-pop.