In Shame, Salman Rushdie wrote, “To unlock a society, look at its untranslatable words.”
The Oxford English Dictionary contains over 600, 000 entries, and English is generally regarded as the language with the most words. And yet, there are lexical gaps: Other languages have words for which English has no direct equivalence. Some of these words describe concepts or feelings which are so commonplace, beautiful or brilliant that one can’t help but wonder: Why don’t we have a word for that?
Translating into English roughly as melancholia, but infused with much more than that. Vladimir Nabokov, in Eugene Onegin, described toska:
“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels, it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
Have you ever been out with a friend, and bumped into an acquaintance – only to forget their name, as you try to introduce them? That moment of panic and hesitation as you desperately rack your brains? It has a name: tartle.
Even Milan Kundera, author of the Unbearable Lightness of Being, struggled to translate this word, writing:
“As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it.”
The closest English approximation would be to describe it as a state of agony and torment, created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.
The Good Son, the 1991 album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, was inspired by this emotion. Cave said:
“When I explained to someone that what I wanted to write about was the memory of things that I thought were lost for me, I was told that the Portuguese word for this feeling was saudade. It’s not nostalgia but something sadder.”
The Dictionary from the Royal Galician Academy defines saudade as an
“intimate feeling and mood caused by the longing for something absent that is being missed. This can take different aspects, from concrete realities (a loved one, a friend, the motherland, the homeland…) to the mysterious and transcendent.”
Sobremesa is the time you spend sitting around the table with friends of family, after you’ve finished eating, but haven’t yet paid the bill or cleared away the dishes; talking and laughing.
“Gather the family and invite over a couple of good friends. Push the sofas and chairs up close to the coffee table. Douse the electricity and light some candles. Better yet, light a fire in the hearth. Serve plenty of food and drink. Raise a toast or two, or three, and feel the warmth flow around the table. Look at each other until you see the candlelight shimmering in each other’s eyes. You’ve got hygge!”
Although it literally means to walk in the wind for fun, uitwaaien describes that stroll you need to take outside when things all get a little too much; a walk outside to clear the head.
(Kiriwina tribespeople of the Trobriand Islands)
The closest translation in English is, perhaps, “open secret”, but it doesn’t quite capture the nuances of mokita: that truth which everyone knows, but no one speaks of.
Mono no aware (物の哀れ)
This is a beautiful term which relates to the bitter sweetness of transience, and a sadness for the passing of things, as in the last days of summer or the ephemeral spring. Derived from the Japanese words mono (物), which means “thing”, and aware (哀れ), which was a expression of measured surprise, like when we say “ah!” or “oh”. So, mono no aware is sometimes translated as the ahh-ness of things.
Simply, and brilliantly: An intended improvement, which only ends up making things worse.