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?
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.
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…