Although I’m a native English speaker, I’m fascinated by other languages and how communication varies by culture. I’ve previously blogged that differences in languages seem to shape our thoughts without us realizing it and might be responsible for cultural differences. For example, directionally-challenged individuals might not do well in Pormpuraaw, a remote Aboriginal community in Australia. The indigenous language doesn’t have relative terms like left and right but instead uses absolute compass directions (north, south, east, west).
Conversely, there are words in other languages that have no direct equivalent in English. These are often lost in translation. One of the most famous is the German word schadenfreude which refers to the pleasure derived by seeing someone else’s bad luck. Schadenfreude may be more popular but another German word, torschlusspanik, seems more poetic to me. A literal translation of torschlusspanik would be panic over the closing of a gate but the word alludes to a person’s fear of having fewer opportunities as they get older. If you are happy over a rival’s lack of success late in their career, you might have schadenfreude at their torschlusspanik.
On a recent trip to Brazil, I asked a native speaker to give me examples of Portuguese words that don’t translate easily into English. He immediately suggested saudade, the longing for something (or someone) you loved but which you have lost. Unlike nostalgia which includes sadness the memory will never return, saudade includes the hope that what is longed for might return in the future – even if the hope is extremely unlikely. Saudade is so engrained in the culture that it’s reflected in fado music, a type of mournful singing.
Not surprisingly, there is a book on this subject called ‘In Other Words’ which includes these and several other fascinating words including:
- Jayus – an Indonesian word that describes a joke told so poorly and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh.
- Dépaysement – a French word that describes the feeling which comes from not being in one’s home country.
- Ponte – an Italian word that literally means bridge but refers to the extra day taken off to make a national holiday falling on a Tuesday or Thursday into a four-day vacation.
After traveling to six countries in the first three months of 2011, I’m suffering from dépaysement and could use a ponte. That’s no jayus.