Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lost and found in translation

In the Dec/Jan issue of the Literary Review, David Profumo enthuses about The Untranslatables by linguist C.J. Moore (the US edition is called In Other Words). As the blurb says, it is “a lexicon of fascinatingly precise phrases, for which there are no direct English translations”. German, for example, has Drachenfutter which “encompasses actions aimed to diffuse a wife’s fury at the appearance of her drunken husband”.

NPR lists some examples from the book:
African: ilunga
This word from the Tshiluba language of the Republic of Congo has topped a list drawn up with the help of one thousand translators as the most untranslatable word in the world. It describes a person who is ready to forgive any transgression a first time and then to tolerate it for a second time, but never for a third time.

French: esprit de l’escalier
A witty remark that occurs to you too late, literally on the way down the stairs. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations defines esprit de l’escalier as, “An untranslatable phrase, the meaning of which is that one only thinks on one’s way downstairs of the smart retort one might have made in the drawing room.”

Japanese: yoko meshi
As an untranslatable, this one ranks high on my list of favorites. I could not improve on the background given by commentator Boye Lafayette de Mente about this beautiful word, yoko meshi. Taken literally, meshi means ‘boiled rice’ and yoko means ‘horizontal,’ so combined you get ‘a meal eaten sideways.’This is how the Japanese define the peculiar stress induced by speaking a foreign language: yoko is a humorous reference to the fact that Japanese is normally written vertically, whereas most foreign languages are written horizontally. How do English-speakers describe the headache of communicating in an alien tongue? I don’t think we can, at least not with as much ease.
You do wonder why there is no English equivalent for the Italian attaccabottone, meaning a buttonholing bore. But I think there is no mystery that only German has a word for Schadenfreude.

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