Just Above Sunset
October 9, 2005 - Words That Cannot Be Translated

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A bit back, on 26 September 2005 to be precise, John Walsh in The Independent (UK), reviewed a new book, The Meaning of Tingo, by one Adam Jacot de Boinod, published by Penguin Press. You can order it here - it's £10 - or you can order it from Independent Books Direct at a special price of £9 (with free shipping and handling) if you ring them up on 08700 798 897 - but Penguin Press doesn't seem to account for those of us on this side of the pond. One suspects they don't ship to Hollywood. Georgina Pattinson also reviewed the book in BBC Magazine the same day.


The Walsh review is here and the Pattinson review here, and know that de Boinod's title is significant as "tingo" is an word from the Pascuense language of Easter Island meaning "to borrow objects from a friend's house, one by one, until there's nothing left."

What follows is a bit of that. And note that Walsh predicts this will be this year's Eats, Shoots & Leaves - a wildly popular book on grammar and punctuation (really) that has been discussed in these pages by our readers - see April 25, 2004, The Grammatical Panda.

Pattinson opens noting that English is a rich and innovative language but says, "You can't help feeling we're missing out."


Maybe so, and she notes the English language has borrowed words for centuries, with khaki and croissant her cases in point. Of course, and a good reference is The Growth and Structure of the English Language (1905) by Otto Jesperson, one of the few books still here, in Hollywood, from the old days back in graduate school. If you're at all interested in how language changes, this is good stuff, with curious political implications. What happens when one nation conquers another? Who uses what words? Jesperson covers such things in his notes on how the language changed after the Norman Conquest - 1066 and all that. William of Normandy - French dude - crosses the channel and runs the joint. When the beast is in the field it retains its Anglo-Saxon name - it's a cow - but when it reaches the table, all cooked up, the word used for it then is French in origin - beef. Most curious.

In any event, English is filled with words borrowed from the days of empire, when the sun never set on it all, and useful words were sucked into English, like ketchup, from Tagalog.

Adam Jacot de Boinod is interested in what hasn't yet been sucked into English. Walsh asks many questions: why does German have a word for 'a person who leaves without paying the bill' (Zechpreller) or that Albanians need twenty-seven words for moustache? He suggests that while learning a foreign language is, of course, the surest and fastest track to becoming familiar with another culture, the words themselves offer hundreds of revealing clues to the preoccupations of that culture. Who knows why Albanians are fascinated with moustaches?

Georgina Pattinson (BBC) notes this on those Albanians and the facial hair thing: "Madh means a bushy moustache, posht is a moustache hanging down at the ends and fshes is a long broom-like moustache with bristly hairs. Vetullkalem describes pencil-thin eyebrows, vetullperpjekur are joined together eyebrows and those arched like the crescent moon are vetullhen."


What the author says? "What I'm really trying to do is celebrate the joy of foreign words (in a totally unjudgmental way) and say that while English is a great language, one shouldn't be surprised there are many others having, as they do, words with no English equivalent," he says.

Okay, the guy plowed through 280 dictionaries and surfed 140 websites, and what did he find?

Hawaiians have 108 words for sweet potato, 65 for fishing nets, and 47 for banana.

And "Kummerspeck" is a German word that literally means "grief bacon" - used to describe the excess weight gained from emotion-related overeating - while a "Putzfimmel" is a mania for cleaning, and "Drachenfutter" (literally "dragon fodder") are the peace offerings made by guilty husbands to their wives - and, get this, "Backpfeifengesicht" - a face that cries out for a fist in it. That's SO German. On the other hand, the Dutch have "uitwaaien" - a word for walking in windy weather just for the fun of it. No wonder they didn't do so well in the two world wars. And in the Netherlands you have "plimpplampplettere" ¿ a word for skipping stones on water when you need to relax. These are not serious people.

The Walsh item is the more extensive of the two, and since the book is not yet available stateside, it is the best resource, and contains a long excerpt.

Some of us might be fond of the German term "Torschlusspanik" - "the fear of diminishing opportunities as one gets older."

Less useful is the Persian word "nakhur" - "a camel that won't give milk until her nostrils have been tickled" - but that might pass into English somehow. "You know, Jane, sometimes you're a real nukhur." It just sounds like a good insult.

Go read the Walsh item. Some of the better words-that-cannot-easily-be-translated:


PANA PO'O Hawaiian - To scratch your head in order to help you to remember something you've forgotten.
NGAOBERA Pascuense, Easter Island - A slight inflammation of the throat caused by screaming too much.
KARELU Tulu Indian - The mark left on the skin by wearing anything tight.


MAHJ Persian - Looking beautiful after having a disease.
BAKKU-SHAN Japanese - A girl who looks as though she might be pretty when seen from behind, but isn't when seen from the front.
ALGHUNJAR Persian - Feigned anger of a mistress.


KOSHATNIK Russian - A dealer in stolen cats.
BUZ-BAZ Ancient Persian - A showman who makes a goat and monkey dance together.
CAPOCLAQUE Italian - Someone who co-ordinates a group of clappers.
QIANG JINGTOU Chinese - The fight by a cameraman to get a better vantage point.
GRILAGEM Brazilian Portuguese - The practice of putting a live cricket into a box of newly faked documents, until the insect's excrement makes the paper look convincingly old.


LATAH Indonesian - Uncontrollable habit of saying embarrassing things.
YUYURUNGUL Yindiny, Australia - The noise of a snake sliding through grass.
DESUS Indonesia - The quiet, smooth sound of somebody farting but not very loudly.
FAAMITI Samoan - To make a squeaking noise by sucking air past the lips in order to gain the attention of a dog or a child.
YUYIN Chinese - The remnants of sound that stay in the ears of the hearer.

Ah, Umberto Eco says problem with translation is the conflict "between the purely theoretical argument that, since languages are differently structured, translation is impossible, and the commonsensical acknowledgement that people, after all, do translate and understand each other." (See his book Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation, reviewed in these pages here, November 16, 2003.)

Things can be translated, sometime you just have to use a lot of words when the original language is a bit more concise.




Observations from "Our Man in Paris," Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis


Who knows why Albanians are fascinated with moustaches?  Albanians are fascinated by moustaches because most Albanians, including women, have them.


"And in the Netherlands you have "plimpplampplettere" - a word for skipping stones on water when you need to relax."  Nothing to it – plimp – plamp –plettre - and then it sinks.


"Torschlusspanik" – goal – shoot – panic - panic if you don't shoot the goal before the game ends - but if yes, then:


Tor! Tor! Tor!

Bin ich verschnappt !?!

Bin ich verrückt ?!?


- actual radio dialogue from World Cup game broadcast, first German win after WWII


"DESUS Indonesia - The quiet, smooth sound of somebody farting but not very loudly" – and the 'Word of the Year' without doubt –


"FAAMITI Samoan - To make a squeaking noise by sucking air past the lips in order to gain the attention of a dog or a child."  So what is the hiss in Spanish called?  The one you do to get a waiter's attention in a busy and noisy café – Psssst.   Works like a charm.  Or used to.


"Backpfeifengesicht" - 'a face that cries out for a fist in it' - back - cheek; baked goods, bread - backpfeife - slap on the ear - gesicht – face ... dunno ...

to me it looks like baked-pipe face –


Yeah, and "Kummerspeck" is a beautiful example of German expressionissmus.  Literally the fat you put on because of worry. You eat to feel better. There's also 'Winterspeck,' which is fat you are supposed to put on because winter is coming, and it will protect you when you fall down in a snowdrift full of Schnapps. And does anybody know what Schmalz is?  'Schmalz' - this is lard, often containing 'speck,' and folks spread it on bread and eat it. Yummy so they say.  Schmalz is fat, grease, lard, melted butter, tallow, ear-wax, and yes, sentimental too.  But mostly it is stuff you eat, especially if you have 'Kummer.'  And Speck - this is bacon


Note - Ric was a journalist in Germany just before relocating to Paris.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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