As a person who is often searching for the right word and has a tangential interest in learning single words from foreign languages to add to my speech, Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words immediately interested me. I don’t know how I first came across it, but it was already in my online cart when my mother found a copy at a second-hand shop and I was prompted to finally pull the trigger. The book promises a definition and illustration of more than 50 words from various languages that have no direct translation in English. But are these words as far out as they seem?
Now, I’m not a linguist, but I think it’s fair to say that words with no direct translation are fairly common, especially when one considers a word’s connotations. Of course, we the readers don’t want the mundane minutia of the various connotations of words that may or may not have ostensibly direct translations, and this book does skip all that and get right to the words you never thought there would be a word for. But sometimes the connotations of a word in its foreign language creep back in and muddy up the waters a bit.
Each word is given a two-page spread with an explanation (including the language it’s from and whether it’s a noun, verb, etc.) on the left hand page, and a definition worked into an illustration on the other. The artwork is simple and emotive, having a child-like or “homemade” look to it. It looks a bit stiff at times, but I enjoy the style, and, with few exceptions, it helps guide the reader to the “feeling” the words are trying to convey. I would understand the argument that the artwork can make the book hard to read, but I personally didn’t have this problem.
The book starts out pretty well, specifically with “pålegg”, meaning: anything you can put between slices of bread. And following that are several equally interesting words that quickly bring the question to my mind of “how many people in these languages actually know these words?” I mean, as an English speaker I can get along entirely fine without knowing what “akimbo” means, as I’ve never heard it spoken by anyone, and can’t remember reading it in any text that wasn’t defining the word. I only remember it because I have a fairly good memory for useless things (like how to pronounce “Van Gogh” in Dutch), and it seems probable that if there was an English word for “the roadlike reflection of the moon” that most people wouldn’t understand you if you used it.
That doesn’t mean these words aren’t nice little things to know, and they do make you think about the little things we could have words for if we wanted to, but just as I started getting used to that the book started sprinkling in some words from compound languages. Or rather languages that use a lot of compound words (think German). And I have a bit of a problem since, if directly translated, those words would just become two English words that would connote a similar meaning, for instance: if I said the words “blue smile” or “grief bacon” in the context of people being insincere or stress eating, you’d likely understand what they meant, and just because other languages happen to be able to combine two words more easily doesn’t make them “untranslatable”. It’s like that old myth/saying that the Inuit have over 100 words for snow or something like that. It’s technically true, but that’s because they combine words, so every type of snow or snow-related thing gets its own word. And I think that’s almost cheating in the context of what was being presented to me.
So I had a bit of a bad taste in my mouth as I started wrapping up the book (it’s only 50 or so “words” long). It just felt like an interesting exercise improperly executed. There were some words like Goya, meaning the feeling of getting lifted away by a story, but then those are followed by things like Szimpatikus, which has the same roots of several English words, and could almost be considered a direct translation of some slang versions of them. Even for such a short book, the balance seemed all wonky.
But when I reached the end, I found I had enjoyed myself, and probably in equal amount to what I had spent on the book, though it is teetering on the edge. There isn’t a lot here, and it does have some strange thematic problems, but overall the artwork is whimsical and the idea wonderful. I will be keeping the book by my desk when writing in case I need any inspiration for single words I’d otherwise have to put in a sentence, but I don’t know how I’d feel about it if I wasn’t a writer. It feels like an idea a publisher nabbed and printed before it was finished to prevent being scooped. I’d recommend that anyone give it a flip-though, if you enjoy it then you’ll probably want a copy. And until the day that it comes out, I’ll be hoping that someone else starts up a similar project to this book that doesn’t have the same disconnect.