I rather suspect that when Sofia Coppola made her movie Lost in Translation, she prayed that it might turn out to be, if nothing else, a succès d’estime. Had that turned out to be true, her hopes would have had a nicely linguistic irony all of their own, since the French phrase is barely translatable itself, and refers to a phenomenon-an artistic creation unlikely to make much money but loved by the wiser critics-that, incredibly, is matched by no handy off-the-shelf equivalent word in this oh-so-flexible and oh-so-enormous lexicon that we are proud to trumpet as English.
In the end, her film, which was variously described as haunting, elegiac, and touchingly memorable, turned out to be a huge commercial triumph, probably hauling in more dollars per day than any of her father’s productions. And while some of us who enjoy non-English phrases because they are often so elegant, succinct, and uniquely employable, may have been briefly regretful not to be able to employ the aforementioned success in this case, her film briefly turned the spotlight on another inescapable, but often overlooked, reality. People who are not us-or foreigners, which of course includes us in their eyes too-speak, write, and do things that are alien, mysterious, and impossibly difficult to translate, but which, when explained, often make an awful lot of sense.
And further: The moment you understand the words and phrases and the wonderfully sensible concepts that they frequently encapsulate, you have come some small way toward understanding the people who employ them. Which, it seems to me, is the prime benefit (aside from the serendipitous pleasures of browsing) of the delightful treasure-house-literally the thesaurus-of linguistic marvels that follows.
Take the Chinese word mianzi, for example. Having no other word to use, we call this “face,” and it represents, very roughly, the inner dignity that is possessed by every human, which all others dealing with its possessor are duty bound to uphold, and neither to threaten nor to challenge. Shout an insult at a Chinese shopkeeper and you make him lose face, you threaten his mianzi, and you commit the most cardinal of sins. Buy your Chinese colleague the most expensive cognac imaginable and you give him face, and you will in consequence be blessed for all eternity.
Having lived in China for many years, I had long supposed the East to be more richly endowed with untranslatable and lexically inscrutable concepts, such as mianzi, than any other part of the world. That was until recently, when I met a young Russian student in California. This woman, now a hopeless convert to the joys of English, had as a child been very skeptical about its merits: Yes, she said, there were pleasing enough words in English-she mentioned melancholy, sequester, and mandolin for starters. But why, she asked, was there no single word in English for concepts that in Russian are so simple? Why nothing for country house? Or for smoked fish? To her, English had been merely a stiff and functional language:The Russian she had spoken as a child-and what is revealed in the following pages (with Russian words like razbliuto: do please look it up-is in many ways as she suggested: infinitely richer, more romantic, and filled with very un-English cadence and with possibility.
In defense of the fugitive wonders of the English to which my student was initially blind, I have always enjoyed our tongue’s singular oddities-such as mallemaroking, a word that was once defined as the carousing of drunken sailors on icebound Greenland whaling ships and one that seems a perfect example of the remarkably inclusive nature of the tongue we speak. (The definition has lately changed, omitting the word “Greenland,” indicating, no doubt, the globalizing of the mallemarokers‘ habit.) But Christopher Moore will no doubt chide me gentry, or reprove me (debates about this particular usage further reminds me of the pleasures of English), by suggesting that however inclusive English may well be, speakers in the outside world can always show us how much more subtly so their languages can manage to be.
And then I find myself drifting dreamily in agreement with him, back to my beloved East, and wondering, indeed, how on Earth it can be that we speak a language that has no equivalent for the most subtly delicious of all Japanese phrases: mono-no-aware, which means no more and no less than appreciating the sadness of existence. You see the cherry blossoms on the trees in Kyoto in April and you love them, but you love them most of all because you appreciate, so sadly, that soon they will all be gone. Mono-no-aware: a phrase, which like all Japanese words has every syllable pronounced, which deserves never to be lost in translation, and which serves as a reminder that the understanding of tongues other than our own offers us a chance to come to a better understanding of peoples other than ourselves-an understanding that can only be for the betterment of us all.
For a selection of words from In Other Words, click here.
By arrangement with the publishers. Walker & Co. hold US rights; Fitzhenry and Whiteside hold Canadian rights; Oxford University Press hold UK rights; Allen and Unwin hold ANZ rights.