Hygge and All That: What’s Found in Translation

By Regina Connell.

Language. It unites, it separates, it delights.

In this political season when words are mostly used to unite in order to divide, I’m focusing on the delight side of things.

Wabi Sabi

Wabi Sabi

Language reveals what individual cultures choose to notice and value, and it certainly seems to me that we could all be noticing more.

I love the notion that the Japanese don’t have a single word equivalent for romantic love (which they used to think of as a form of madness), but nonetheless gave us wabi sabi.  I love that the Germans gave us a whole raft of knowing words about mood and psychology, like schadenfreude, and weltschmerz, that the domestic-loving Danes have given us hygge, which only loosely translates to something like cosy, but really encompasses something much bigger. (I still wish I could pronounce it.)

Mandy Aftel turned me onto a wonderful, hefty, challenging tome called Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, edited by Barbara Cassin. It’s a good place to wallow in ideas, see how words in English have morphed over time. Reading the entry on “pleasure” was an eye opening one: the ability to see how it morphed from ancient Greek to present day, shedding its profundity as an idea as it lost touch with its philosophical roots across the centuries.

For a lighter, more whimsical version of this same notion there’s Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Catalog of Beautiful Untranslatable Words from Around the World. (See a review here.) And in a different illustrative style (and with a lovely line of prints to go along with it), is Found in Translation by Anjana Iyer.

Anjana Iyer's genius Lost in Translation posters

Anjana Iyer’s genius Lost in Translation posters

For those pressed for time, however, and focusing only on positive words for which there are no English equivalents there’s Tim Lomas’s Positive Lexicography. (Thanks to The Browser, for bringing this to my attention.) My favorites?

Mangata: Swedish for the glimmering that moonlight makes on water. (Beautiful.)

Cafune: Portuguese for tenderly running one’s fingers through a loved one’s hair.

Mono no aware: Japanese for the pathos of understanding the transiency of the world and its beauty.

Orenda: from the Huron—the power of the human will to change the world in the face of powerful forces.

Ilunga: Tshiluba for being ready to forgive a first time, tolerate a second time, but never a third time. (Genius.)

What other experiences do you have that beg for a single beautiful word? And what would it be?

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