Lost in Translation

Imagine this scenario. You go on a date with someone for the first (or even the second time). You’re making lovely conversation, asking the usual: what do you do? What are your hobbies? What are your favorite movies? If you’re the really nerdy type, perhaps the conversation turns to math and you’re able to massage a timely trivia question into your conversation.

As you’re asking these questions, there is that one nagging question that you want to ask, but don’t. And based on the looks of things, your date wants to ask this question as well. What you and your date really want to ask each other is this: your thoughts on marriage. You sense it in your date’s body language and facial expression: the way the eye twinkles, the brow furrows, the nose twitches. Is there a word to describe how you’re feeling about this situation?

The Word

Turns out, there is no one English word to describe how you and your date feel. But there is such a word in at least one language of the world: the Yaghan language of the Tierra del Fuego (in Chile). The word is Mamihlapinatapai and can be roughly translated as “a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that they both desire but which neither one wants to start.” Pretty amazing, huh?

Wikipedia cites Mamihlapinatapai as one of the hardest words to translate (that’s a link to a fascinating article in Wikipedia).

I liked this tidbit from that article:

A similar construction occurs in Russian, where “I have” translates literally into at (or by) me there is. Russian does have a word that means “to have”: иметь (imet’) — but it is very rarely used by Russian speakers in the same way English speakers use the word have; in fact, in some cases, it may be misinterpreted as vulgar slang for the subject rudely using the object for sexual gratification, for example, in an inept translation of “do you have a wife?”.

Can you think of any other words/phrases in foreign languages for which there is no (simple) English equivalent? My favorite has to be Schadenfreude, which is a German word which doesn’t have an English equivalent but roughly translates to “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.” Feel free to share your favorite non-translatable word in the comments.

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Note: there’s an article I read relating to the date scenario described in this post, but I can’t find it at the moment. When I do, I’ll update this post…

2 thoughts on “Lost in Translation

  1. My personal favorite is the Japanese phrase “mono no aware,” which roughly translates as “the fleeting beauty which is melancholic but wonderful at the same time for being so fleeting.” Think of cherry blossoms floating through the air in a gust of wind. Beautiful, but fleeting, so the beauty is tinged with sadness, or the sadness with beauty. Or when a moment is sad because it is so short in duration, but beautiful and wonderful because it can never be repeated. Just like the cherry blossoms blowing on the breeze.

    The ultimate meaning can be revealed in the short lives we lead on earth. Melancholic, because they are so short, yet that short length of time is also what makes our lives beautiful.

    Maybe someone else can provide a better explanation. Or watch a Yasujiro Ozu film. His movies are filled with “mono no aware.”

  2. “Saudade” — Portuguese. There’s no exact translation in English, although my wife describes it as “nostalgia for something that never was.”

    Wikipedia gives us a definition as “vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist … a turning towards the past or towards the future.” There are lots of other definitions, but you certainly can’t squeeze any of them into a single English word.

    In general, we’ve found that Portuguese has lots more words for feelings and emotions (especially fine gradations thereof) than English.

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