“Lost in Translation” book reviewBy Jonah B. Meyers / March 10, 2017
‘‘I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable.”
~ Walt Whitman
As any socio-linguist would tell you, the language we speak and the range of diction, or word-choice, we use is directly reflective of the cultural life of the society in which we are enculturated.
Words themselves are born from necessity and experience. And not all societies share identical experiences.
Thus, the idiom: lost in translation.
And yet, some of these not-quite-directly-translated expressions make for the most colorful and entertaining linguistic situations: poetic, humorous, complex, insightful, and the downright silly.
Introducing Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World, written and illustrated by Ella Frances Sanders, who “intentionally lives all over the place, most recently Morocco, the U.K., and Switzerland.”
Did you know that there’s an actual, factual word for the reflection of the moon at night in the water? MANGATA, as the Swedes call it.
When was the last time you enjoyed some SAMAR? That would be Arabic for “staying up late long after the sun has gone down and having an enjoyable time with friends.”
How long, would you venture a guess, does it take to eat precisely one banana? While “general consensus is that it takes around two minutes,” those who speak Malay have a specific noun for such banana-consumption: PISAN ZAPRA.
Or how about when one ensures that “things happen even with minimal resources, even if it has to happen ‘by hook or by crook?’” Why, that would be the Hindi word JUGAAD, of course.
Other endlessly fascinating examples include the Welsh noun HIRAETH, which describes a “homesickness for somewhere one cannot return to, the nostalgia for lost places of one’s past – even places that never were.”
Then there’s KOMOREBI, the word in Japanese for sunlight, as it filters through leaves of the trees.
Surely lots has been written and spoken about falling in love, but what about falling out of love? There’s a word for that – specifically the Russian verb RAZLIUBIT.
Ever sought comfort in eating, or over-eating? Unhealthy as it is, German has a word for the activity: KUMMERSPECK, which literally means “grief-bacon.”
If you’ve ever had a mark left on your skin by wearing something too tight (think a watch, or too-small socks), know that you’re not alone, as in Tulu that predicament’s known as KARELU.
Equal-part romantic, and equal-part morbid, the term YA’ABURNEE, in Arabic, means, “you bury me,” and is a beautifully-disturbing “declaration of one’s hope that they will die before another person, as it would be too difficult living without them.” Got that?
And who among us has never had the experience of “searching for something in the water using only your feet?” There’s a word for that verb in Wagiman (a near-extinct Australian language): MURR-MA.
Finally, as but one more example of that which Lost in Translation has to offer, who knew that in Indonesian there is a word – JAYUS – which “refers to a joke so terrible and so unfunny that you cannot help but laugh.”
While this little gem of a book will in no way solve the ills of the world, nor indulge the reader in any deep-thought consideration of pressing issues, Lost in Translation is, quite simply, a fun, eccentric, odd and enlightening read which pleases as much as it informs. It delights as it delivers. And sometimes, there’s something to be said for that.
Jonah Meyer works with the Greensboro Public Library and thoroughly enjoys writing book reviews for the Peacemaker.