A world tour of words for unique feelings and sights (Book Review)
Title: Lost in Translation; Author: Elle Frances Sanders; Publisher: Square Peg/Random House India; Pages: 112; Price: Rs 450
Supposing you were hosting a party and repeatedly went out to check if anyone was coming. Is this anxiety or anticipation, or is there a specific word capturing the mix of excitement and impatience you may be feeling? Is there any particular word for sunlight filtering through tree leaves, the shimmering “road” on water created by the moon’s reflection, or the time taken to eat a banana?
Languages take our communication to a higher level, allowing us to describe any situation, any feeling or anything we may see — but not always with a specific word. Though Ancient Greek had a word for everything, it was circumscribed by its time, but even some modern languages, especially English, which have vast vocabularies due to their readiness to freely take words from anywhere, would too be stumped for these.
For there are words for all these feelings and sights, but they come from the languages of the Arctic-dwelling Inuit, the Japanese, the Swedish and the Malaysians. “Iktsuarpok”, “Komerobi”, “Mangata”, and “Pisan Zapra” respectively are among the 52 surprising and evocative words collated in this small but invaluable book, enlivened with simple but delightful illustrations by the author.
“In our highly connected and communicative world, we have more ways than ever to express ourselves, to tell others how we feel, and explain the importance or insignificance of our days,” says writer-illustrator Sanders.
On the other hand, the exchanges’ speed and frequency “leave just enough room for misunderstandings, though, and now perhaps more than ever before, what we actually mean to say gets lost in translation”, she says.
And it is to span this gap between meaning and interpretation which hasn’t been eradicated by our ability to communicate frequently and faster, Sanders offers this collection with words that “may be answers to questions you didn’t even know how to ask, and perhaps some you did”, which “may pinpoint emotions and experiences that seemed elusive and indescribable”, or lead you to remember persons long forgotten.
This could be, in the same order, a Korean word for the “subtle, often unnoticed art of listening and gauging another’s mood” or the German word to unforgettably describe what happens to the cables of electronic devices when many of them are being charged from the same point, the Japanese word for gazing into the distance without any specific thought, or splendid sounding words from Yiddish, which can be most perjorative, for people who don’t seem to be all there, or are too unlucky.
But Sanders has been most thorough in her gleaning — apart from well-known tongues, there are words from the India’s Tulu language, the nearly-extinct Wagiman of Australian aboriginals, from Hawaiian for those who can’t understand directions no matter how well explained, Bantu and Yaghan, spoken in Tierra del Fuego on the very edge of South America, but capable of expressing unspoken understanding between two people to do something, though neither of them wants to take the first step.
India also marks its presence with “jugaad”, which is rather Urdu and not Hindi as rendered, joining two more evocative Urdu words and one from Sanskrit.
And some entrees are both entertaining, edifying or frequently both like the Icelandic “Tima” — which needs to be known more widely in our consumerist but busy lives, the Tagalog word for the first stirrings of the real romantic, and a Welsh word that seems to be the epitome of nostalgia.
There is much to learn here — and not only to expand vocabularies or serve as “some brilliant conversation starters” as per Sanders, but a vivid and enduring realisation of language’s capacity to shape us, our lives, and our societies, and also that none of them is comprehensive in itself and thus supreme — despite what their adherents may say.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com> )