Heck, You Just Can’t Git There from Here

There is a minor genre in English letters of books for the general public that catalog foreign words or phrases that are reportedly untranslatable, or that put it better than any English word or idiom ever could. Over the years I’ve been given at least three such volumes, and it’s easy to find more. A search for, say, In Other Words by Christopher J. Moore (Levenger Press) on Amazon leads to plenty of other “recommendations,” including The Meaning of Tingo by Adam Jacot de Boinod (Penguin), Toujours Tingo (idem), I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears by Jag Bhalla (National Geographic Society), and Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit by Howard Rheingold (J.P. Tarcher), whose subtitle says it all: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases.

For most translators and linguists, I would guess, such linguistic Wunderkammern (which in English is simply cabinets of curiosities—there, that wasn’t so difficult…) are charming enough but founded on a notion that does not retain the aitch two oh, as a W.C. Fields might have put it. It doesn’t hold water. The authors of such collections are more like eager, if slightly clueless, explorers proudly spreading out the shiny or curiously wrought baubles they’ve brought home with them from abroad. To an experienced eye, the stuff is not terribly remarkable at heart, something like Marcel Duchamp displaying, in the teens of the last decade, an American snow shovel (unknown in France and hence thoroughly new to the then recent French immigrant) or a rack for drying bottles (unknown in America), though without the artist’s sly wit and philosophical flair.

In the case of In Other Words, the blurbist, or more accurately the flappist, since the passage appears on the front cover flap, invites potential readers to “take a trip around the world in words and unlock the meaning of some of the most insightful, intriguing, and satisfying expressions on the planet, for which there are no English equivalents.” Really? No English equivalents? For example, in the chapter entitled “Portuguese,” one of the book’s “untranslatables,” we learn, is saudade, “a kind of intense nostalgia that only Portuguese people are supposed to understand.” A skeptical reader, a translator on his day off, a linguist killing time in a bookshop might first wonder if an elderly café owner and sometime poet in the peeling grandeur of an old neighborhood in Lisbon has the same sense of saudade in mind as the young pup or gallivanting gato along the beaches of Rio. And what about “longing” or “yearning” in English, after all? Surely one can hear just as much of the old Tristan chord resounding in the latter’s depths as a speaker of Portuguese or Brazilian presumably hears in saudade. These kinds of “untranslatables” are more on the order of national myths, just so stories which a people can pride itself on, taking comfort in such vocabulary’s seeming oddity or eccentricity: see, we are a great soulful people with unfathomable depths of feeling, or a whimsical endearing people with such colorful ideas.

This subgenre says something as well about speakers of English at this time and their tacit certainty of the language’s dominance around the globe. In French, for example, a language famously prickly about its salad days in the seventeenth century and past ascendency (I’ve heard so many times how French was once the language of diplomacy that the phrase ought to be a part of any modernized version of Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas), I have no recollection, for example, of ever stumbling on any similar polyglot celebrations of the world’s linguistic beauties. On the myriad beauties of French, yes. Either lost beauties, or the rich idioms to be found in her dialects, or in the many forms of French practiced throughout French-speaking countries other than la douce France herself. For the English readers of the subgenre, while there is certainly an encouragement, unspoken or no, of one’s curiosity about foreign languages and all things linguistic, there is also a bit of misplaced and misguided self-pity, the reverse of the self-congratulatory note heard in the crowing about the size of the English vocabulary. On the one hand, English rules! On the other, how provincial, unworldly, pitifully monolingual we English speakers are! For English-language translators, by the way, the latter sentiment has yet to mean an increase in the sale of books in translation, at least in the United States, and I’m not going to start holding my breath anytime soon. Finally, for translators such books are surely entertaining, but also a bit embarrassing in their naivety. Is there really good reason to marvel that different peoples in different parts of the world with all kinds of different things on hand, working with different ranges of natural sounds and different ways of making those sounds cohere, would end up expressing themselves… differently? It’s like the Steve Martin routine from his stand-up comedy days when he tells how he had recently visited Paris, hopped in a cab and discovered, to his utter amazement, that French has a different word for everything.

When I began to seriously learn French at the tender age of twenty, I remember writing to a friend about the novel difficulties I was then facing, with every bit of new grammar a challenging Chinese puzzle and every new word a wonder—as well as royal pain, laboriously learned by rote and effortlessly forgotten by the end of the day. I tried to make the point that the French words didn’t yet measure up to their English counterparts, and I well recall giving the example of steeple; the French counterpart, clocher, I wrote, was just not as tall and pointy to my ear as steeple. I also recall being inordinately proud of my find, as if I had imparted something very profound and poetic about language. Not really, of course. Just a young man discovering for the first time the pleasure, and possible profit, to be had in willfully playing fast and loose with signifier and signified while brushing aside the principle of the arbitrariness of the sign.

A psycholinguist might point out that the main vowel in steeple occurs “higher up” on the throat, as it were (what linguists call a front vowel, i.e., closer to the front of the mouth),  whereas the first vowel in clocher (known as a back vowel) is “lower” or further back, and that the respective sounds are indeed higher and lower pitched, an unconscious effect not to be dismissed here. And some evidence (scans of brain activity) may suggest that a first language (mother tongue), with respect to a second, third and so on, shares most of the same regions of the brain but one, perhaps yet another, physiological reason why a first language feels more intimate, no matter how much study of other languages comes after. On the other hand, familiarity breeds content in this case. In the more than three decades since I first discovered clocher the French word has had ample opportunities to commandeer brain cells and make itself quite at home. If it is connotatively not exactly the pointy equal of my steep English steeple (the adjective and noun have a common origin indeed), clocher is certainly no hollow semantic vessel; it too has myriad associations now and proves more appetizingly brioche-like in fact, more “golden and baked,” than its English counterpart, thanks to a vaguely remembered description of the clocher de Saint-Hilaire, St. Hilary’s steeple, from Swann’s Way that I’ve just now looked up: Quand après la messe, on entrait dire à Théodore d’apporter une brioche plus grosse que d’habitude (…) on avait devant soi le clocher qui, doré et cuit lui-même comme une plus grande brioche bénie, avec des écailles et des égouttements gommeux de soleil, piquait sa pointe aiguë dans le ciel bleu (When, after mass, we would go in and tell Theodore to bring round a brioche bigger than usual… we had before us the steeple, which, itself golden and baked like a larger blessed brioche, with flakes and gummy drippings of sun, was thrusting up its sharp point in the blue sky). Were I in need of acuminating my French clocher further, I could do far worse than to associate it forever more in my mind’s ear with the pointed alliteration and higher pitched vowels of Proust’s piquait sa pointe aiguë.

In the end, many of the “untranslatables” touted in the collections put together by English-language publishers put me in mind of that old, pre-GPS story of driving and getting lost in the backcountry of the southern United States. On a dusty stretch of unpaved road the driver pulls up beside a grizzled local who surely must know his way around the county. Asked about how to get to such and such a place, the old fellow thinks a bit, points west and says, “Well, you gotta drive ‘bout ten mile that way before you come to…,” corrects himself, points east and says, “No, better you drive that way ‘bout four mile…” then his voice trails off again. Finally, with a timeless gesture of defeat and commiseration before the fixed, unbending laws of the universe, he states, “Heck, son, you just can’t git there from here.”

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