There are a lot of reasons I haven’t blogged lately. Only one of them is that I’ve been having trouble finding the right book. I don’t have enough to say about my troubled relationship with Winnie the Pooh or a deep enough understanding of Taoism to make my thoughts on The Te of Piglet worth sharing. The random thoughts that catch my attention in Nobody’s Home aren’t concrete enough to justify me blogging about Dubravka Ugrešić again. I haven’t had the attention span to properly read Mary Jo Salter’s A Phone Call to the Future yet, either. The big one, though, is that I’m wrestling with some pretty big relationship stuff with my mom and I’ve been spending most of my energy working on an essay about that.
So when I found Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders at a nearby Little Free Library (I swear I still spend most of my free cash on books, but you really don’t want me to blog about There’s a Wocket in My Pocket, do you?), the idea of focusing on one word at a time seemed perfect.
This is not a new concept. I can’t tell you how many blog posts I’ve read about untranslatable words. I’m either especially drawn to them (likely) or they’re everywhere (oh, internet). But there is always something extra lovely about holding a book in my hands, and despite the fact that the illustrations sometimes occlude the words and that one of the snippets of exposition beside the words seems to fit a different word entirely, I will love this book more than I can love any blog post of the same nature.
These are the untranslatable words that speak to me…
Hiraeth (Swedish) – A homesickness for somewhere you cannot return to
Having spent a year in Chile under Pinochet’s dictatorship, a year in Poland as the country transitioned to the west, and a childhood in a strangely liberal and artistic Idaho town that’s now closing its theaters and opening up Baptist church after Baptist church, I feel more than my fair share of Hiraeth. This and the liminal feeling the exposure to and removal from places, cultures, and friends has likely shaped me more than any other thing. Hiraeth has shaped the deep, instant attachments I feel to friends and the strange way I expect almost nothing in return—simply the knowledge that my people are okay. Hiraeth also led me to settle into and create a home as soon as I possibly could after leaving high school—a home that so nourishes my sense of well-being that sightings of me outside of it (except when I’m at work) are quite rare.
Feuillemort (French) – Having the color of a faded, dying leaf
Language is ineffable. Life is ineffable. This word speaks to me of fragility and the gorgeous things that can happen to our languages and our soul when we take a moment to observe closely. Which is the only thing worth doing in art.
One of the things I enjoyed most about Lost in Translation is that many of the words themselves feel ineffable. They refer to things so momentary that we can’t quite catch them. I loved the feeling of trying to capture those feelings that I’d not yet taken the time to examine and appreciate.
Sobremesa (Spanish) – Time spent chatting over a table with friends long after the food is gone
This word is not in the book, but I discovered it recently on the internet and I used this word to change my life. Having a child, especially one who’s transitioning to solid foods, became an excuse (or created an imperative) for my husband and me to actually eat at our dinner table. Which was wonderful. But after we adults finished eating, my husband would spring from his seat and start cleaning the table and erasing all the evidence of our having cooked.
Don’t get me wrong, I love having a clean kitchen, but discovering “sobremesa” gave me the language I needed to ask my husband to linger, let the dishes rest for a bit, and talk with me. When you have a nearly one-year-old baby, any time you can actually have a conversation is a gift.
Kummerspeck (German) – Grief bacon or the excess weight we gain from emotional overeating
“Language wraps its understanding and punctuation around us all, tempting us to cross boundaries and helping us to comprehend the impossibly difficult questions that life relentlessly throws at us.” – Ella Frances Sanders
Except it doesn’t. There are some things that are still beyond language. Which brings me to the real reason I’m writing this blog today. My friend lost his newborn daughter on Thursday. When my husband spoke the words “lost their baby” as I was emerging from a nap, I thought, “How on earth do you lose a newborn? They aren’t all that mobile.” And then understanding hit me.
Feel that silence? That blow? That complete failure of language? I know I do. We reached out, like you do, like so many did. We offered love and support and love. I cringed in anticipation of the normal platitudes people send in response to loss—the things we say to reassure ourselves that there’s a reason behind such a thing and that it couldn’t happen to us. They were mercifully absent. I’d read a blog post earlier in the day about a woman whose friend lost a 21-month-old baby and her own experience with wordlessness. That post had made me sad, but it was nothing like the reality.
My husband, who is always better at translating the untranslatable feelings into words and action than I am, helped me find something to say, something to do. But language and all the love in the world cannot fix what happened.
“Words reduce reality to something the human mind can grasp, which isn’t very much.” – Eckhart Tolle
To my writing soul, language is everything. And although sometimes language just isn’t enough, I have to keep trying.
If you want to explore your own glossary of untranslatable words and feelings, pick up a copy of Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission.