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Lost in the Translations : Marveling at the Variety of Ideas Expressible Only in Foreign Languages

May 22, 1988|JACK SMITH

WE WHO speak English are inclined to think that our language is the most expressive in the world and that there is nothing we can't say in it.

In his book, "They Have a Word for It," Howard Rheingold has collected "a lighthearted lexicon of untranslatable words and phrases" from other languages.

Rheingold's point is that these words--from Sanskrit, German, Japanese, Yiddish, Hindi and others--express ideas that are hardly available to us because we have no word for them.

He reaches beyond what he calls the "linguistic waiting room," in which we find words we use but consider foreign--such as deja vu , the French word for the feeling that one has experienced something before, and siesta, the Spanish word for a midday nap.

He lists several German words that are used in English--such as gemutlich (cozy, comfortable, genial, homey), Zeitgeist (the prevailing mood of a certain period) and Weltschmerz (a gloomy, romanticized, world-weary sadness)--which are often found in the work of young English writers in the throes of Weltschmerz .

There are also several French phrases that are available to literate English writers, such as esprit de l'escalier (a clever remark that comes to mind too late), contre-coeur (against the wishes of the heart), reve a deux (a mutual dream or shared hallucination).

Some German words that were not familiar to me also seem to fill a need: Schaddenfreude (joy one feels as a result of someone else's misfortune), Fachidiot (excessively narrow-minded technical expert), Radfahrer (one who flatters superiors and browbeats subordinates), Torschlusspanik (fear of being left out).

Italian is not ignored. We find far secco qualcuno (to render someone speechless with a cutting comment), attaccabottoni (a doleful bore who buttonholes people and tells sad, pointless tales), sbottonarsi (to open up, reveal one's opinions or feelings).

But the most provocative, mind-expanding words and phrases come from Asian, Pacific Island, American Indian and other non-European languages.

From the Hawaiian comes a most musical and useful word: ho'oponopono . It means to solve a problem by talking it out. Rheingold says it is "a social gathering and healing process that combines the functions of a religious ceremony, group therapy, family counseling, town-hall meeting and small-claims court."

Mbuki-mvuki is a Bantu word that means to shuck off one's clothes in order to dance. There's no word for that practice in English, but the need is obvious.

The Apaches have a word, sitike , for in-laws who are formally committed to help in a crisis; the Maya, on the other hand, have a word, bol , which means both in-laws and stupidity. In Chinese, the word majie means to curse the street. The Chinese are too polite to curse one another face to face, so to vent their anger they literally curse the street. We could well afford to adopt this custom on our freeways.

The Balinese have a word, Njepi , that means a national day of silence. Rheingold observes that we know in America the power of words, but we have no idea of the power of silence.

From distant Tierra del Fuego comes a word, mamihlapinatapei , for which no comparable word exists in English but whose meaning is well-known to romantic young Americans and every moviegoer. It means a meaningful look, shared by two people, expressing mutual, unstated feelings.

Rheingold notes that the Guinness Book of World Records lists mamihlapinatapei as "the most succinct word" and defines it as "looking into each other's eyes, each hoping that the other will initiate what both want to do but neither chooses to commence."

Rheingold includes the German word Schlimmbesserung , a so-called improvement that makes things worse. "We need this word," he says, "and we need it now. . . . This word has a momentum all its own. Mention it in any group and you will find that people can't help offering their own suggestions."

The Chinese word ta means to understand things and thus take them lightly.

Would we could all do that.

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