Do you ever visit the kiosks at the shopping mall? Did you ever go kayaking? Do you eat yogurt? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, congratulations: you speak some Turkish! From the fascination with loanwords, to Albanian having 27 words to describe different kinds of eyebrows, the world of languages is filled with amusing and interesting words and expressions that will definitely spark curiosity and illuminate our perspective towards certain day-to-day vocabulary and feelings that we never knew there was a word for; the untranslatables.
But are they really untranslatable if we can understand the exact feeling they describe? And is it really translated if it requires a two-page cultural description?
Let me introduce you to hygge: the Danish word for describing the concept of Scandinavian coziness pronounced as somewhere between hoo-gah and hue-gah that is so in trend that the Oxford Dictionary named it the word of the year in 2016. The same year, at least ten books were written to introduce the Scandinavian cultural concept of coziness under the name of hygge which was mainly a trendy word for not having a one word translation in English which the Danes themselves borrowed from the Norwegians in the 18th century which meant “well being.” Hygge can actually and simply be translated as ‘coziness’, but what makes it so untranslatable is the culture that comes with it - the simple, convivial joys of home and family life, and friendship, the warm, flickering glow of candlelight, hand-knit socks and sweaters, the tight-knit social circles, that’s all very hyggelig (the adjective form of hygge). A similar concept also exists in neighboring North European cultures such as “gezellig” (Dutch) and “mysa” (Swedish). But what is it that makes us so curious about this loanword, what can a word really tell about us, our language, our culture, and how we see the world?
The concept of coziness hygge refers to is universal to the human experience, however adopting the Danish concept of hygge in the British or American way of life is difficult and exactly what makes it so untranslatable and fascinating to many people.
Edward Sapir suggests that “Language is a guide to ‘social reality’. […] it powerfully conditions all our thinking about social problems and processes. Human beings do not live in the objective world alone […] but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society.” Does this mean that perhaps we cannot really understand a concept unless it has a matching name in our native language?
Albanians have 27 words for eyebrows, yet, as English speakers we would still be able tell the difference between all kinds of eyebrows using certain adjectives to describe them instead of unique words. An experiment by Kay and Kempton proved that people whose native language has no words, like Uto-Aztecan language, for green and blue were still able to differentiate between these two colors.
English might not have an equivalent for some concepts that explicitly exist in lexical form in other cultures, yet we can undoubtedly recognize the sentiments signalled in these foreign words. These untranslatable words open up a new window into other cultures as well as enriching our understanding of experiences in other parts of the world and making us yearn for the same experience.
As Robert Frost states “poetry is what gets left out in translation,” especially when we look for exact matches for words in other languages that mirror cultures that are continents apart. The magic of the untranslatables must come from the fact that they are filling the poetry gap in translation; it is the gap that exists due to the difficulty of translating emotions that come with a certain word.
Whether it is the poetry gap that they fill in or the simple fascination a word can trigger about a culture, the untranslatables are here to stay and gain the attention of logophiles (word lovers). And maybe the happiness is really just a hygge away!
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