The English language is acknowledged as being one of the most complicated languages to translate into other languages, along with Hindi, Korean, Icelandic and a host of others (depending on which particular set of statistics you look at). But did you know there are some weird and wonderful words that are unable to be translated at all?
No? Well, even more interesting is the reason why these words can’t be translated. No solo word in any other language represents the scope of the original word. Each of these words can usually only be translated using multiple words or a phrase.
A notable English word that fits the bill is Serendipity, which literally means fortunate accident, and has no direct translation in any other language. But there are some really fascinating words in other languages, too, that helps us realize how emotion-driven verbal and written forms of communication can be.
What if those precious nameless moments between a couple actually did have a word to describe them?
Who would think there was a word for the specific type of bad luck you can experience?
There are many untranslatable words that seem to focus on someone’s sense of being. While Litost in Czech describes the torment that is gained by being aware of how miserable your life is, there are other single words our their to describe a positive feeling. Hygge is that cozy feeling you get while you are sitting around a cozy fire with your loved ones, but my favorite, all-encompassing, untranslatable word is Gezellig.
There are many, many more examples of untranslatable words (the Italian even have a word for people addicted to the UV glow of tanning salons: Slampadato!), but one thing they all have in common is they show us that not matter who we are, we all have the same experiences over our lifetimes, and it behooves us to learn more about the fascinating languages around us that connect us to each other.
Kij Johnson is a Hugo winner, and a three-time Nebula winner (in consecutive years, yet!) and is acknowledged as one of the field’s leading short fiction writers. And this week, over at Galaxy’s Edge, Joy Ward interviews her about what it takes to be true to yourself as a writer:
“One of the most important things I ever say to my students is, everything else I teach them is just tactics, but the thing that I am always proudest of bringing up is: figure out why you’re writing. Really why you’re writing. Not, oh I have things worth saying or oh, I want to make a living or whatever it is. But really if you go all the way down deeper and deeper and deeper, like spend two years in therapy with a therapist every single Tuesday. So why do you write? Usually the answer is somewhere in early childhood. So it’s a little kid response. I’m not ascribing any value judgment to that. Because mine, when you get right down to it, is parents were sort of emotionally absent and when I wrote I didn’t get praised for my writing very much but I didn’t get praised for anything else. So my writing ultimately was a way of saying I’m not my mother and look at me to my parents. I also did a lot of art for the same reasons. That’s mine. We all have one, ultimately, underneath it all. Whatever we say in interviews usually is the cover up. It’s the pat response we use to cover up the sincere response. I do it because the only time anybody took me seriously as a 5’10” Amazon blonde was when I wrote and they didn’t know what I looked like. Because they stopped staring at my chest long enough it took to read my story. So there are so many responses and so many of them sound venal or petty or small or something like that. Those responses are not any of those things. Those responses are the heart that when we understand it gives us the spines that we build adulthood on. That’s what I always think of, so to me knowing that is the most important part of your writing cause if you know your reason for writing is because you’re competing with your dad and you didn’t know it. It’s like, as soon as you know that, now you can get away from writing your dad’s story or the stories that are going to school your dad about you and now you’re going to be able to tell the stories you want to tell. If you are doing it because you are insecure and you want people to look at you, that you’re smart or clever or cute or whatever it is, as soon as you know that, you are in control. Until you know it you don’t. So I’m always telling undergrads but especially adults because we get those super complicated defense mechanisms that allow us to never, ever look at ourselves. That’s fundamental. That’s my answer really. It’s fundamental that we understand who we are and our smallest, pettiest, most selfish or narcissistic or greedy, envious little pieces. We can either counter or use to our advantage and make them work.”
Go to the interview page of Galaxy’s Edge Magazine to read the rest of this wonderful interview!
Copyright © 2017 by Joy Ward.