language crush
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They’ve got a word for that

Untranslatable words, a beautiful and terrible concept ultimately accountable for most of the translator’s notes, have suddenly become the talk of the day, and I wanted to be part of it.

The Untranslatables are those foreign words so glorious and unique in their stupendous synthesis, that they only leave you with two possible choices: you can either (1) steal them altogether, or (2) renounce the sentiment.

In the first instance we have what we call a loanword. A small bag of wonders of this kind will necessarily include macho, virtuoso, saudade, toilette, desaparecido, ukase – utterly splendiferous words that have made our lives better, and that bear witness to our capacity to pay homage to the victims of our linguistic thefts with a credit.

My passion for these started in May, when I discovered that the Germans have a word for “an idea that you may come up with only when you’ve had too much to drink” > Schnapsidee (literally, booze idea). It instantly became my favourite word for obvious reasons.

In this area of interest, German earns a pre-eminent position, given the fact that its words can stick together to form what to us seem Pantagruelian arrays of consonants, in lieu of the neat succession of substantives, adjectives or indirect complements you find in Romance languages (English is actually something in between). Please compare Ger. Geschwindigkeitsbeschränkungen / En. speed limits / It. limiti di velocità. Another example: Handschuhschneeballwerfer = one who criticizes or abuses you from a safe distance. Literally, a person who wears gloves when throwing snowballs. (The coward!)

That’s how German wins the lexical black belt, churning out words which we swallowed as we found them because – honestly – how can you even think of competing with the über-splendour of Zeitgeist, Weltschmerz, Leitmotiv and Blitzkrieg?

This happy trend goes on even to this day, with some more lucky phrases (though no longer linked with the philosophical destiny of the globe) like Kummerspeck, composed of Kummer (pain) + Speck (bacon) = the excess weight gained by using what you find in the fridge to deal with emotional angst. In Kabelsalat (= cable salad) and verschlimmbessern (a verb for what you do when you start with the idea of fixing something but end up making everything worse) modern technology meets an uncommon skill for synthesis.

(You can use buzz words and loans to study history. In the 80s came perestrojka and glasnost. 2014, instead, gave us life-tracking and normcore.)

50 Words for Snow

There’s obviously a cultural component. Just think of the popular tale that states that the Inuit have millions, BILLIONS words for snow, given the fact that all their culture revolves around it.[1. The truth is, Inuit is a polysynthetic language, therefore it can add endless prefixes and suffixes to the two main roots for snow.]

If you’re serial stereotypers like myself, a superficial study of untranslatable words is not only a way to enjoy the multiplicity of the ethnosphere, but allows us to sense the values of people who share the same linguistic forms. There’s also space for an innocent sneer. (I had heard that Scots have a word for the itch that you feel on your upper lip when about to take a sip of whisky, but apparently it’s totally made up. My first thought was naturally “Wouldn’t they just”.)

You can make the same discoveries about yourself.

My mother tongue, Bulgarian, has at least fifty words for all the possible relationships with your relatives. This means that there are five different ways to say uncle. I know more or less twenty of these curiosities, but if I happen to call my cousin’s husband from the maternal side with the name that everybody knows should describe cousins’ husbands from the paternal side, I’m immediately regarded as if I’ve flushed the whole of my Balkan culture down the toilet. For a population scattered in a diaspora around the globe, I’m more or less the equivalent of dry shit.

My only comment on this matter is this: Balkan culture or not, fifty terms – including a specific one for the husband of your wife’s sister – is a jab in the face of linguistic economy.


Words for relatives in Bulgarian.

And what about my foster language, Italian?

Without diving into political jargon with terms like qualunquismo (=an apathetic or downright hostile attitude towards political parties), or blurting out self-evident truths like the fact that there are – roughly speaking – 500 names for pasta in Italian, my adopted tongue has one of the richest vocabularies in terms of shades of blue. In many European languages, there is no equivalent for azzurro (the colour of the Mediterranean sea near the coast; a hue between turquoise and sky blue). They are therefore forced to resort to equivalents of “light blue” or “deep blue”, without being able to convey the idea with any accuracy.

Most of the classic banking terms come from Italian: that’s why Germans today open ein Konto (and Englishmen an account). And then there’s musical terms, duets, concerts, ballet; and art and architecture: frescoes, cupolas, architraves… Italian, to wrap it up, entertains.

But one of the main reasons I bow to it every morning is this: it’s probably the only language I know of that has a word for “shitty coffee” (=ciofeca).

Here go three words with super-sayan levels of cultural connotation:

hüzün From Turkish = melancholy deriving from a perceived distance from your spirituality; by extension, the sombre atmosphere of Istanbul.
duende From Spanish = the state of authenticity and heightened emotion you reach while watching flamenco.
yakamoz Turkish again = the reflection of the moon on the Bosphorus ( ♥ )

What are we waiting for?

Some untranslatable words express unswervingly universal concepts. Their usefulness could therefore do much good elsewhere – so why not adopt them straight away?

sgimilearachd In Scottish Gaelic, describes the freeloader’s habit of dropping at your place at mealtimes. Incidentally, some of the Scots I know do this with the utmost nonchalance.
chantepleurer In French, singing and weeping, together. BeOOtiful!
donaldkacsázás (i.e. Donald Ducking) Hungarian: circulating around your home with nothing on but your top.
tartle Scottish dialect = Hesitating before pronouncing somebody’s name, because you have forgotten it.
jolie-laide French = Ugly beauty. The feeling you get when contemplating – say – Stella Tennant or Charlotte Gainsbourg. Somebody who theoretically looks like a munter, but their weirdness leaves a certain space for appeal.
нямам /ˈɲamɐm/ Bulgarian = to not have, or to not be there, but in a single word.
nekama Japanese = a man pretending to be a woman, but only in Internet chat rooms.
badkruka Swedish = a person who needs a shitload of time to get into the sea because the water is cold. (I thought I might write to Swedish dictionary editors, suggesting to use a picture of me to illustrate the term, but I definitely need to diet first.)

The real untranslatable words

The adjective “untranslatable” is actually a stretch: there’s nothing you can’t explain, even at the price of 300 lines of footnotes. (A chap even wrote a book in this way.)

For a translator, a word like lebensmüde (Ger. = weary of life) is immediately intelligible in its splendid vividness. The real pain in the ass are the most common and undifferentiated words. I think I speak for most of my colleagues who translate from English into Italian when I denounce my open and visceral hate for boost. The same goes for like and enjoy. English is the language with the richest vocabulary, yet it doesn’t have a word that stands for playing an instrument as opposed to playing a game. Plus, it has this strange habit of accumulating senses. Take set:

“Superficially it looks a wholly unseeming monosyllable, the verbal equivalent of the single-celled organism. Yet it has 58 uses as a noun, 126 as a verb, and 10 as a participial adjective. Its meanings are so various and scattered that it takes the OED 60,000 words—the length of a short novel—to discuss them all. A foreigner could be excused for thinking that to know set is to know English.”
— Bill Bryson, Mother Tongue

This post is also available in it_IT.

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Filed under: language crush


Sono nata in Bulgaria e sono cresciuta in Italia. Mi occupo di traduzioni e revisioni creative, pignole e attente alla qualità per importanti clienti internazionali. Vivo in Olanda con il caro D. e la piccola pupyna. Lavoro con l'inglese, l'italiano, occasionalmente con il bulgaro.

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