Lost In Translation

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.

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8 Responses to Lost In Translation

  1. João Paulo Silva March 27, 2011 at 12:45 pm #

    That is a nice one. Saudade is indeed un-translatable. Has so many meanings and feelings and that is why people say that Portuguese is a Poets language!!
    And Ponte is also used in Portuguese (Ponte) with the same meaning and also in Spanish (Puente).
    The diversty enrich us all.

  2. Michael Koch March 28, 2011 at 8:01 am #

    Thanks for this.

    Re “shaping thoughts”: My children (7 and 4) are brought up bilingual (english and german) and a lot of people who hear this tell me: “That’s so good for their professional future.”. They’re right, of course. But to me living between languages and therefore cultures is far more important. It sometimes becomes almost philosophical. A saying in one language might express the glass as half empty, whilst the other language see it as half full.

    That’s what it is all about.


  3. Jeff Veis March 28, 2011 at 4:35 pm #

    Another LIT word for the list is “Hygge” which is a Danish word meaning a “complete absence of anything annoying, irritating or emotionally overwhelming, and the presence of comforting, gentle and soothing things”. Apparently it can be used to refer to Danish pastimes such as grilling sausage on long summer evenings and sitting around lit candles on a rainy night. I think we could all use a little more Hygge in our lives!

  4. CKarr March 29, 2011 at 7:32 am #

    Great post. Reminds me of hilarious discussions around correct translations for surveys at BOBJ. Apparently “setting expectations” is difficult to translate into French and “tell us about your relationship with us” takes on new meaning in Swedish..!

  5. J9 March 30, 2011 at 7:23 am #

    Someone at my company was called by an in-company recruiter to ask about a candidate who mentioned that candidate knew the existing employee. In-house recruiter calls, from offshore, and asks “So, how long have you been in a relationship with Ms. X?”

  6. Henrik March 31, 2011 at 2:52 am #

    Actually I thought about the Swedish word “Lagom” which has no direct English equivalent, meaning “just the right amount”.

  7. Ricarda Rodatus April 6, 2011 at 10:04 am #

    In Germany we call this “ponte” – Brueckentag. We can enjoy many of those. I miss them majorly in the US. 1st we obviously have less bank holidays here, and 2nd they always seem to fall miraculously onto a Monday.

    I also thought about the German word “Torschlusspanik”, after reading your blog. We mostly refer to this term when it comes to not yet closed relationships. But you can also use it in so many other instances. What interests me, is how you can avoid or cure it. Probably as often it can be tackled with self-awareness and self-confidence.

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