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.

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