There has never been more of a need to translate things accurately, to translate things truthfully, and this has to coexist with the fact that languages are growing, changing, and dying all the time—shaped by humanity as it races forwards. It can be difficult to keep up with something that is always moving, but it is important to at least try. Translation at its best gives people the opportunity to acutely understand, to experience how another human being far removed from their daily life feels about something. It means we can empathise with problems we would have otherwise never known existed, and begin to comprehend the emotions of the cultures and nations which lie across oceans.
Even with the aforementioned best intentions, it can still be nigh on impossible to convey the specifically vague yet deeply-rooted emotions or thoughts of a culture or language, and therein lies the ‘untranslatable’ word. It is perhaps easiest and also most futile to try and begin to demonstrate this with love, as even within the boundaries our native tongues, we still struggle to articulate the inexhaustible facets of this word and what it ultimately means. Part of the reason for this is that love is excruciatingly subjective—we cannot study it effectively from neatly laid-out textbooks, and it is never experienced in the same way by two people. With this in mind, I’m sharing with you some examples of translated love from my two books, Lost in Translation and Speaking in Tongues.
First up is the Norwegian word forelsket, which for them pinpoints the euphoria we feel when we first begin to fall in love. The idea behind ‘untranslatable’ words is that we don’t have a direct, word-for-word translation for them, and have to grapple a little—try and explain using sentences, paragraphs, and in my case, illustrations.
From my first book of untranslatable words, grew another about unusual and beautiful sayings, proverbs and unique expressions, and among them are some amazing ones relating to love and relationships. This idiom from Colombian Spanish actually means to be madly, head-over-heels in love.
Idioms are peculiar expressions that cannot be understood from the individual meanings of the words that comprise them—they are more than the sum of their parts. This, combined with the cultural differences afforded when discussing love, means that there are some extraordinary examples, like this Farsi expression. Actually a term of endearment for native speakers, jeegaretō bokhoram is a way of expressing deep affection and love and would usually be used only when speaking to close loved ones, like family members or dear friends. Its meaning is along the lines of ‘I would do anything for you’, ‘You are my heart’, or ‘I love you so much, I could just eat you up’.
You will know exactly what this Tagalog (an Austronesian language with over 17 million speakers) word is. Once kilig has taken hold there’s no stopping that can’t-think-straight, smiling-for-no-reason, spine-tingling feeling that starts somewhere deep inside the walls of your stomach.
This next word, meaning ‘you bury me’, is a beautifully morbid declaration from Arabic, a declaration of one’s hope that they will die before another person, as it would be too difficult to live without them. Probably lying somewhere between romantic and catastrophic, and is perhaps the most uncomfortable yet beautiful way of letting somebody know that you’d quite like them to stick around for a while.
Lastly, a Spanish expression that leaves a sweet aftertaste of citrus. To call someone your orange half is to refer to them as your soul mate, the love of your life (in an informal, affectionate way), and it’s a widely used term of endearment. In ancient Greek literature, Aristophanes had a notion that humans were originally man-man, man-woman or woman-woman and that one day, Zeus split these doubles in half, leaving us with an ongoing (sometimes fruitful) search for our other half ever since. If that isn’t romantic, then I don’t know what is.
To me, the fact that these words and sayings exist (whether love-related or not) is a great comfort, and I’m definitely not alone in feeling reassured by their effectiveness as a tangible reminder of our rich cultural and emotional variations. While we all have very different ideas of precisely what love is, and hold close the power to decide how it may or may not directly affect us, I think that to have a chance of leaving this place with even a little understanding of it, we need to not only get better at recognising love in all its everyday disguises, but also learn about its untranslatability.
Although we are restricted to some extent by the words we know, in the languages we speak, it feels astonishing to learn or stumble across the right turn of phrase in a foreign tongue. We can feel better understood, more able to love, less likely to assume.
There are certain languages that are assumed to be the ‘romantic’ ones, but I don’t think that can possibly be true—we should feel lucky that we have the option of looking into other cultures to better understand ourselves, our relationships. There is no one language of love, because there will never be exactly the right way to say it; what is said between our hearts and our heads really is untranslatable.
Written by the lovely Ella Frances Sanders who describes herself with the following 3 hashtags…
#boketto (this is an untranslatable Japanese word which means gazing vacantly into the distance without really thinking anything specific)
She is learning French, and is currently trying to decide which other language she’d like to learn alongside it. She figured that would be plenty for now, as she is definitely the sort of person who would learn much better in the corresponding country, surrounded by native speakers. When Ella was a kid and people asked the ‘what superpower would you choose’ question, her answer was that she wanted to be able to speak every single language in existence.
Ella is a published writer. Find out more by reading on!
My first book, Lost in Translation, grew from a small blog post I created on the same topic several years ago, which went oddly viral and was subsequently noticed by a book editor. My next book, Speaking in Tongues (known as The Illustrated Book of Sayings in the US), was an expansion on a similar theme, and a desire to simply highlight links between people that they might not have otherwise seen. Both were researched and created in relatively short periods of time, but the illustrations and text developed alongside each other which for me gave the illusion of an orderly process.
Lost in Translation is a compendium of 52 untranslatable words from all over the world, and Speaking in Tongues is a kind of older sibling—it’s a collection of expressions, proverbs, and idioms from many different languages. The focus of both the books is the illustrations, because for me that is how people are best able to have a strong connection with a word or an idea, an emotional tug that they feel in their head and their heart. I suppose the target audience is anyone and everyone—I’ve had equally lovely emails from 8-year-old readers and 76-year-old readers.