It’s Thanksgiving this week. For many Americans, the most important time of the year for gathering with those you love. And my friend Susie Bright sent me a thoughtful gift: a list of the top 10 relationship words that cannot be translated into English.
Now, you may be aware that untranslatable-word stories usually bring out my grouchy-linguist persona (my recent Eskimo lexicography post offered a hint). But this list stayed with me and didn’t just go in the trash. There are certain special reasons why I warmed to Susie’s gift (I’ll explain later; trust me).
I’ve seen most of the words before, of course: People love these lists of “untranslatable words,” and pass them around endlessly like chain letters. The lexicography is unchecked, sometimes uncheckable. For example, Yagán is claimed to have a word mamihlapinatapai denoting a wordless yet meaningful look shared by two people who desire to initiate something yet are both reluctant to start. But we have no way to find out whether this is true: Yagán is an indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego with one remaining speaker, no dictionaries, and hardly any descriptive literature.
So like everyone else, I’m really just forwarding unverified lexicographical gossip when I repeat these things. Yuanfen is reportedly a Chinese word for the binding force that links together two people in a relationship by fate or destiny, and cafuné in Brazilian Portuguese means tender running of fingers through someone’s hair. Retrouvailles is reportedly a French word for the happiness of meeting again after a long time (actually, I think it just means “reunion”), and la douleur exquise denotes the heart-wrenching pain of wanting someone you can’t have.
Koi no yokan is reportedly a Japanese phrase for the sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall into love; ya’aburnee in Arabic literally means “You bury me” but is used to declare the hope that you’ll die before someone because it would be so difficult to live without them. Forelsket is claimed to be Norwegian for euphoria experienced when first falling in love, and saudade, Portuguese for a longing for a lost love.
There are probably mistranslations in the list. In fact there must be, given the advertised untranslatability (this is the unsavory paradox about untranslatability theses: If they were true, it would ipso facto be impossible to show it).
My belief, though, is that we humans are so similar that we simply don’t have untranslatable concepts or experiences. Of course, accidents of history may result in language B having no single lexical item for a concept that language A names with one word. But that’s a different matter, a trivial one. Anyway, notice that the Japanese koi no yokan is not a word but a phrase (I know virtually nothing of Japanese, but I know that no means “of”). Likewise the French La douleur exquise (literally “exquisite pain”). If they can use phrases, we can use phrases.
Ordinarily I would do some more lectern-pounding at this point, about the naïveté of confusing concepts with words and mistaking periphrasis for ineffability. But … this week I found I felt more friendly toward this list of relationship concepts. They are deep and universal. Everyone needs words or phrases for them, and I think the visible foreignness of the ones in this list, correctly translated or not, just makes them seem more wonderful to people. The untranslatability claim is nonsense, but the feelings these alleged translations evoke are not.
My wonderful philosopher partner, the love of my life, died in May this year. We were sure we’d spend this Thanksgiving together despite her illness, but we were wrong. I’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving with good friends in the American expatriate community in Edinburgh, but it’ll be my first without Barbara in 20 years.
I remember the hint of koi no yokan when we first met on March 31, 1991. For a while thereafter there was a certain mamihlapinatapai, but by the fall, a distinct forelsket. She lived 2,000 miles away from me; we longed for our retrouvailles. Eventually we married, and our relationship grew over the years until with every cafuné I knew that we had a once-in-a-lifetime yuanfen.
We were so happy. Ya’aburnee, I often thought to myself. But that is not how it turned out. Saudade (the concept, not the word) came to stay. I am well acquainted with la douleur exquise.
Susie (daughter of the famous linguist William Bright) is a dear friend, someone who Barbara loved. She earns her living in Santa Cruz, Calif., as a writer on sex and death and other important things. When Susie heard about Barbara she didn’t go down to the condolence section of the card shop on Pacific Avenue; she called me via Skype early on a Sunday morning for an hour’s conversation before breakfast, because she knew what I would need. (Thanks, Susie.) I could certainly use a word meaning “person intuitive enough to know you need to talk to someone who won’t be embarrassed if you cry.” There isn’t such a word. But it doesn’t matter.
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