“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf said in the only surviving recording of her voice, a magnificent meditation on the beauty of language. But what happens when words are kept apart by too much unbridgeable otherness? “Barring downright deceivers, mild imbeciles and impotent poets, there exist, roughly speaking, three types of translators,” Vladimir Nabokov opened his strongly worded opinion on translation. Indeed, this immeasurably complex yet vastly underappreciated art of multilingual gymnastics, which helps words belong to each other and can reveal volumes about the human condition, is often best illuminated through the negative space around it — those foreign words so rich and layered in meaning that the English language, despite its own unusual vocabulary, renders them practically untranslatable.
Such beautifully elusive words is what writer and illustrator Ella Frances Sanders, a self-described “intentional” global nomad, explores in Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World (public library | IndieBound), published shortly before Sanders turned twenty-one.
From the Japanese for leaving a book unread after buying it to the Swedish for the road-like reflection of the moon over the ocean to the Italian for being moved to tears by a story to the Welsh for a sarcastic smile, the words Sanders illustrates dance along the entire spectrum of human experience, gently reminding us that language is what made us human.
In addition to the charming illustrations and sheer linguistic delight, the project is also a subtle antidote to our age of rapid communication that flattens nuanced emotional expression into textual shorthand and tyrannical clichés. These words, instead, represent not only curiosities of the global lexicon but also a rich array of sentiments, emotions, moods, and cultural priorities from a diverse range of heritage.
These words invariably prompt you to wonder, for instance, whether a culture lacking a word for the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees is also one lacking the ennobling capacity for such quality of presence, for the attentive and appreciative stillness this very act requires. Our words bespeak our priorities.
Sanders writes in the introduction:
The words in this book may be answers to questions you didn’t know to ask, and perhaps some you did. They might pinpoint emotions and experiences that seemed elusive or indescribable, or they may cause you to remember a person you’d forgotten. If you take something away from this book … let it be the realization or affirmation that you are human, that you are fundamentally, intrinsically bound to every single person on the planet with language and feelings.
Complement Lost in Translation with Orin Hargraves on how to upgrade our uses and abolish our abuses of language, then treat yourself to this illustrated dictionary of unusual English words.