In Other Words
This book was first published in North America and has now become available from Oxford University Press in the UK. It presents some intriguing examples of words from other languages for which English has no good equivalents — the author, Christopher Moore, calls them “untranslatables”.
The author’s intention is to say something about the culture of the originating language group though the mental associations certain words evoke for native speakers — associations that cause problems for translators. For example, he argues that Spanish duende for a quality of passion and inspiration, especially in the performing arts, has no good English equivalent. In Arabic, it seems, bukra literally means “tomorrow”, but it really refers to an indeterminate future in comparison to which Spanish mañana is urgent.
In some cases, English has got around the difficulties by taking over the word and its associations as a job lot. For example, craic (an Irish spelling of crack, once a term for gossip) literally means “chat”, but that doesn’t begin to describe the mixture of fun, laughter, music, storytelling and good company that’s really understood and which has resulted in the word becoming widely known in Britain and beyond. Though Chinese feng shui would need a long paraphrase to render it in English, we’ve got around the problem by taking over the original.
Many of the examples are wryly humorous, such as Drachenfutter, “dragon fodder”, the peace offering German husbands make to their wives when they have engaged in some inappropriate behaviour. The Italian attaccabottone, for a boring person from whom it is impossible to escape, lacks a good English equivalent, though perhaps buttonholer comes close. In Tierra del Fuego, a mamihlapinatapei is a shared private and unspoken moment “when each knows the other understands and is in agreement with what is being expressed”.
It’s a slim volume, with some small things to think about, but with the cultural background for each word severely constrained by the brief entry given to each. It’s worth considering for browsing.
[C J Moore, In Other Words: A Language Lover’s Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World, Oxford University Press; 31 March 2005; hardback, pp127; ISBN 0192806246; publisher’s UK price £9.99; available in the USA from Walker & Company, ISBN 0802714447 and in Canada from Fitzhenry & Whiteside, ISBN 1550418645]