January 18, 2014
Words are funny things. I think they function as little encodings of shared cultural experience, as I’m sure I’ve said before. This means that weird stuff happens when we try to translate certain words from one culture to another. In American English land we might enjoy total dominance of teh interwebs, but that doesn’t mean that other cultures haven’t embraced ideas which are much harder for us to understand.
As an example consider the German word “schadenfreude.” Transliterated it could be written as “harm joy” or “misfortune joy” or something like that. However for english speakers that doesn’t adequately convey its meaning. Does it describe some kind of catharsis which might accompany bad luck? In fact it does not. Rather it describes the enjoyment one might derive from witnessing another’s misfortune.
These words make interesting case studies especially when studying translation as a discipline. Germans might have adopted this phrase-word-whatever as a witty way to describe something that actually happens rather often, but it takes many more English words to describe the same phenomenon, because we haven’t absorbed the idea to the same extent. Interestingly, I would say that this means most people are wrong when they say a certain word “has no English translation.” It almost always does, though that translation will invariably require many English words!
There is a Portuguese word “saudade” which describes a certain longing or melancholy or nostalgia, usually for something or someone from the past, but also towards the transcendant and abstract. This word has no English equivalent, but the extended definition could be substituted in many cases. This awkwardness results in the phenomenon where meaning is “lost in translation” and it leads to the idea that certain translated works are never as good as the originals.
However we can also just steal these words from their respective languages and use them to denote the foreign concepts in our own language! The Oxford English Dictionary includes both “schadenfreude” and “saudade” and these days they are often used as valid English words in the appropriate context. This is one way that a language evolves to describe new concepts, and it means that there are no words which will never be “said” in some language. What is missing is often any mainstream understanding of the true definition, and the shared cultural experience which it conveys.
I don’t really have a simple point to make here, but the idea that any given language is “missing” certain words is very interesting. If you’d like to broaden your vocabulary in your native language, look to these interesting ideas from other cultures, and find some cool new words to steal!