The Untranslatable

I have a particular fascination with what you might call “untranslatable” words—or words that don’t have an English equivalent. I put “untranslatable” in scare quotes because most of these words can be explained in English; they just don’t have an English equivalent—a single word that expresses the same idea. I think I’m so fond of untranslatable words for the same reason I’m so fond of poetry: they communicate succinctly, and often metaphorically.

Japanese is full of words like this. (German is, too—I’m looking at you, Weltschmerz!). One of my favorites is 横飯 (yoko meshi), which appears in Christopher J. Moore’s In Other Words: A Language Lover’s Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World. Moore defines it thusly:

Taken literally, meshi means ‘boiled rice’ and yoko means ‘horizontal,’ so combined you get ‘a meal eaten sideways.’ This is how the Japanese define the peculiar stress induced by speaking a foreign language: yoko is a humorous reference to the fact that Japanese is normally written vertically, whereas most foreign languages are written horizontally. How do English-speakers describe the headache of communicating in an alien tongue? I don’t think we can, at least not with as much ease.

A section of my dissertation is, in a way, concerned with yoko meshi. I’ve been calling it a “language-learner’s glossary,” wherein the poems attempt to define Japanese aesthetic terms like 幽玄 (yūgen) and 渋い (shibui) from a foreigner’s perspective. Part of the point of this section of the project is to show that a Japanese language-learner may never fully or natively understand these concepts, and an attempt to define them is, necessarily, flawed. The notion of failure is central to the way these poems work, and not just as a kind of self-deflation, but as a mark of humility in the face of imperfect knowledge. Other sections of my dissertation concern the violence that can arise when one insists upon mastery of nature and ideas, so the embrace of uncertainty in these poems is critical to the (loose) argument I’m making about the ethics of knowledge and art.

One such poem, which discusses the term 弦音 (tsurune), or the sound made by the bowstring when an archer releases an arrow, is forthcoming on The Kenyon Review’s website, KROnline, this summer. I’m super excited about it.

All of this is preface. I really just wanted to say that I’ve discovered a new “untranslatable” Japanese word: 積ん読 (tsundoku [listen to it pronounced here]), which means “buying books and not reading them.” I love that there’s a word for this. And I might be guilty of it myself because though I try to avoid tsundoku, inevitably I have a stack of new, unread books on my bookshelf just dying to be read. I’ll get to them eventually. Just let me finish Game of Thrones.


Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

This mysterious title is the literalized English translation of Haruki Murakami’s newest novel, released today in Japan. Until this point, almost nothing has been released about the work, and even now, the title and the bits of plot offered by those who’ve only had time to devour a few chapters remain pretty enigmatic. But oh, am I excited! I was able to read this, the Easy NHK News article about its release, but my Japanese isn’t nearly as good as it needs to be to read the novel in the original language. Sadly, unless I can become more fluent more quickly, I’m going to have to wait for the English translation.

I’m currently struggling to read this light novel, which is theoretically much, much easier than a full-length novel by an author whose language is surreal, poetic, and playful. I’ve heard Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart is pretty “easy” in the original, but let me finish this young adult novel about a wolf-goddess and her merchant companion first. (I’m learning loads of Japanese economics terms! Reminds me of UIC in a lot of ways–learning economics in a literary context. Hm).

Look at that cover!


On The Iron Lady’s Death, “Ding Dong?”

Russell Brand on Margaret Thatcher

Here, Russell Brand expresses exactly my feelings about the death of Margaret Thatcher. I’ve always found her politics repulsive in their selfishness (marketed as “individualism”), but I had a hard time engaging in celebration at the news of her death. As Brand says, “This demonstrates, I suppose, that if you opposed Thatcher’s ideas it was likely because of their lack of compassion, which is really just a word for love. If love is something you cherish, it is hard to glean much joy from death, even in one’s enemies.”

It’s an excellent read, expressing both distaste and compassion.