New Year, New Era–New Language
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
by Ella Frances Sanders
Tenspeed Press, 2014
reviewed by Seana Graham
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language And next year’s words await another voice.
— T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
I got several cool books for Christmas, but this is the one that seemed to be the most apropos for the new year. My sister had learned about it on NPR, and, spotting it in a store we were all doing last minute shopping in, picked it up for me on impulse. I write a blog called Confessions of Ignorance, and though ignorance can be a pretty vast field, a lot of the time I just reflect on words that I come across that I half think I know, but in reality remain sketchy on.
Sanders has compiled a list of words from other languages that speak of states of being that we may all know of in private, but lack a word for. But since Sanders is able to get their meaning across, both through definitions and her beautiful illustrations, it’s not so much that we lack a concept as that we don’t place enough emphasis on it. Or at least not enough to give it its own word.
Saudade (Portuguese) n. A vague, constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, a nostalgic longing for someone or something loved and then lost.
I’ve been thinking a lot about ideas that we don’t have sufficient means to express a lot lately. Our current political situation seems to be lacking a few words in common that would better help us be truly united states. But I also saw Arrival as the old year ended, and as much as it was about a new language coming from aliens—a new, necessary language, I might add—there was another more human level to the conversation that I strongly related to.
In the movie, a woman is whisked away, because she is a premiere linguist and is the only hope in communicating with a group of beings who have arrived unexpectedly on earth from another planet. I was initially annoyed by the heavy-handedness of the military group that came to take her to the task—it seemed ludicrous that they would feed her a fragment of a sentence and expect her to solve the mystery of a non-human language. It was only much later, however, that I began to grasp what I think was the film’s intent, which was to describe different ways of knowing as equally valid, even if unable to communicate between themselves.
I had been spending the weekend with my family, and my nephew, who is an exceedingly well informed young man, had been telling me many interesting things about U.S. policy, history, military tactics and so on. Nevertheless, I began to feel oppressed by it. Not on a personal level—I love listening to his thinking. But I began to feel boxed in by his inexorable logic. I felt, if what you are saying is true, then we are all doomed. The end of this line of thinking and logic is extinction.
And maybe that’s true. But at the same time I felt, there is something that is not being expressed here, and it is unable to become clear in these terms. What it would say if it could is that another world is possible. If we do not accept the initial premise that leads to war and other miseries humans inflict upon one another, then this whole string of logic falls apart. At any rate, I have been thinking about the initial premises set up by any language, how much our assumptions are guided by them. Perhaps all human languages will lead us to the same all too literal dead end. But at least there are other languages. And perhaps with the help of all of them, we will be able to forge a new way of thinking.
Ubuntu (Nguni Bantu) n. Essentially meaning “I find my worth in you, and you find your worth in me.” Can be (very) roughly translated as human kindness.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California and is currently working on a screenplay. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.