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Lost in Translation

Whether they’re fireflies and water fountains or lightning bugs and bubblers, these regional words are all part of the same beautifully, frustratingly complex English language, and they’re far from being the only ones. People from Connecticut describe a sale of household items as a tag sale, and Mainers haul freight in tractor-trailers. Even the pronunciation of words like caramel and bagel can differ from region to region. Linguistic diversity not only occurs from dialect to dialect but between entire languages as well.

Given its complicated and messy origins, it’s unsurprising that English has historically assimilated words from languages all over the world into its lexicon. Science has a Latin origin, government comes from French, and Norwegian gives us berserk, among others. Despite these assimilations, thousands of untranslatable words also exist. They lack an English equivalent and still haven’t been adopted into the language yet.

Interestingly, the notion of untranslatability is itself somewhat controversial. Some people argue that completely equivalent translations do not exist, as something is always lost in the process. On the other hand, others contend that nothing is completely untranslatable because a word’s meaning can still be derived even if it lacks an exact equivalent.

Many untranslatable words describe nature in ways that English words just don’t. Mångata, for instance, is a Swedish noun referring to the road-like reflection that the moon creates in water, and Japanese has komorebi, a noun meaning the sunlight that filters through the leaves of trees. Yes, these words are descriptive, but they are also appreciative. They actively recognize nature as beautiful and ethereal, something the English language doesn’t seem to spend much effort on.

Words in other languages also tend to express emotions and feelings that English doesn’t have the words for, but that almost everyone understands. Razliubit, a Russian verb, describes the bittersweet feeling of falling out of love. Translated as “you bury me,” the Arabic noun ya’aburnee is a morbid (yet admittedly sweet) declaration of one’s hope that they will die before a loved one, as life would be too unbearable without them. Particularly fascinating is a noun from Yaghan, a language with only one living native speaker: mamihlapinatapai refers to a silent acknowledgment and understanding between two people who are both wishing for or thinking about the same thing but are also both unwilling to initiate said thing.

Some of the most memorable untranslatable words actually turn out to be of the utmost unimportance. Kummerspeck is a German noun that literally translates as “grief-bacon,” and it is defined as the excess weight that one can gain from emotional overeating. Last but not least, the Finnish noun poronkusema describes the distance a reindeer can comfortably travel before needing to take a break and relieve itself, which actually happens to be pretty widely accepted as about 4.7 miles ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

So, what do all these gaps in the lexicon of the English language tell us, and what accounts for terms that other languages have no equivalents for, like serendipity and spam? Are English speakers too busy with other, more pressing matters to be bothered with creating new words? Are we now unable to embrace and assimilate existing words from other languages? Have the phenomena that untranslatable words describe simply been overlooked or undervalued by English-speaking cultures?

My answer to these questions is that I have literally no idea. And that’s okay. Just knowing that such untranslatable words exist sparks interest and curiosity about the limits of vocabulary in an increasingly globalized planet. Furthermore, studying these words and their cultural significance can not only enrich our experience of the world but also deepen our understanding of the human condition. Untranslatable words may have imperfect equivalents, but they do a perfect job of connecting us to one another in profound ways, in turn bringing us one step closer to the beautiful Japanese concept of yūgen.

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