Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Semantic holes (and some more boring book-project talk)

Here is an intriguing story from NPR's Morning Edition about the untranslatability of some words and phrases from other languages into English. As you'll hear and see, some English equivalents for some of these would come in handy. As for those words and terms that seem culture-specific, they remind us that language reflects the culture that speaks it, and the world as perceived by that culture.
But what attracted me to this story was that it reminded me yet again how hard it is to talk about something if we don't have a word or phrase for it. This seems simplistic, I know, but it has real implications for my project's notion of the New World as heterotopia. Foucault argues that one cannot speak of a heterotopia beyond acknowledging its existence. We cannot know anything about them because language exists to describe the known, the experienced. Language's domain is space and time. We live in the Americas, but there's this space called the New World--a miscegenated space (note again the very term "New World")--that our literature seeks to explore and define.
There are two different ways in which a language can be unintelligible: a) It is foreign to us; b) it is our language but it expresses something so at variance with custom or what is known/presumed to be true that we can't grasp the import of what the speaker is trying to convey. In the diss, I talk about both kinds as they appear in various fictional and non-fictional narratives. I'll spare you the extended readings, but as an example of (b) I'll make one quick mention of Cabeza de Vaca's meeting with some Spaniards after his 8-year-long journey across Texas and northern Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca asked the Spaniards (who were hunting for Indians whom they'd turn into slaves) not to enslave them; meanwhile, he spoke with his Indian companions in THEIR native tongue, telling them that he was a Spaniard just like the men on horseback. This is a fascinating moment to me, rich in its implications for our own hemisphere.
There's more--there's always more. I'll develop all this more fully in the Comments section, should anyone care to ask.

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Anonymous said...

Untranslatable words are wonderful, unless you're trying to translate them. I encountered this a lot with my German translations at uni where they would give us passages deliberately which were practically untranslatable. There are usually a couple of translator's footnotes in any English edition of a German text.

There are two words from Icelandic and Danish, respectively, which spring to mind with regard to untranslatability, namely the adverb enda (as opposed to the verb which means "to end") which means, essentially, "which is not surprising in view of the fact that...". It is basically the opposite of "but" and I suppose you might just about get away with translating it as "but then" or perhaps "but then of course".
e.g. "Hún skildi ekkert í myndinni, enda ekki nema fimm ára" = "She didn't understand the film at all, but then after all she is only five."

The other is the Danish word hygge, which is described in The Xenophobe's Guide to the Danes as follows:

"HyggeA love of or need for hygge is an important part of the Danish psyche. It is usually inadequately translated as "cosiness". This is too simplistic: cosiness relates to physical surroundings — a jersey can be cosy or a warm bed — whereas hygge has more to do with people's behaviour towards each other. It is the art of creating intimacy: a sense of comradeship, conviviality, and contentment rolled into one.
Friends meeting in the street might say that is has been hyggeligt to see each other, and someone who is fun to be with can be called a hyggelig fyr, when he would hardly be described as a "cosy fellow". The truly emotive depth of the word hyggelig is best captured by considering its opposite, uhyggeligt, which means anything from cheerless through sinister to downright shocking and grisly.

To have a hyggelig time is social nirvana in Denmark. Candlelight is used to encourage a hyggelig atmosphere. In fact, the Danes are mad about candles and use them everywhere, both in public places like cafés, bars and restaurants, and in the home. The dim lighting helps to soften the clean, uncluttered surfaces and uncompromising white walls that are typical features of Danish living rooms. Everyone's ideal is to have a Christania kakkelovn (antique stove) or an open fireplace and feel the warmth from its hyggelige glow.

Achieving hygge generally involves being with friends and family, and eating and drinking."

Anonymous said...

Oh, and in case you hadn't guessed, that was me, fearful_syzygy.

Anonymous said...

Actually, enda is probably a conjunction, isn't it, rather than an adverb, now that I think about it. Sorry to clutter up your comments page, John.


John B. said...

I've been trying to think of words and phrases in English that are hard to translate . . . of course, it would help if I knew more than one other language.

New Testament Greek is filled with such words, too, I know--its three words for different expressions of "love" being the most familiar.

This is one of those off-the-cuff guesses that I've done total research of about 10 seconds on: English is very precise as regards concrete expression, but in naming emotions and feelings its vocabulary is, um, repressed.

Anonymous said...

There are also quite simply more words in English than in most (any?) other languages. While this may mean that English expression can be very varied (in other words there is more than one way of saying most things), it also means (or at least it does for the sake of this off-the-cuff response) that there aren't many individual words that mean a great deal in and of themselves. There are lots of reasons why English wound up with such a huge vocabulary, but perhaps one of them is that it just needs more words to express things than some other (particularly non-romance) languages.