Untranslatable

The Irish word tenalach, we’re told in breathless Internet posts, is untranslatable in English. Which means, of course, that there is a translation but it’s long and flowery — the verbal equivalent of a scented candle — and in this particular case, the following: “Tenalach: A relationship one has with the land, air, and water; a deep connection that allows one to literally hear the Earth sing.”

This doesn’t seem to me a good thing, this relationship. Trying to sleep in the backcountry is hard enough; trying to sleep while the Earth is singing is next to impossible, though it wouldn’t be the first time Irish singing has kept someone awake. Knowledgeable students of the Irish language take issue with tenalach on one point. The word doesn’t exist. At least not in that form and with that definition. There is a word tenlach in Old Irish (perhaps from tendálach, “having fires, fiery, flaming”), which meant fireplace, and by extension those who shared a hearth. Nothing fancy, and thankfully, except for the crackle of peat on the grate and old man McCaig dancing a soft jig in the light of the fire, quiet enough that you could nod off.

The problem with untranslatable words is that many of them are made up — the German expression waldkohlkopfeinsamkeit, for instance, which means “the feeling of eating a cabbage alone in the woods”. Complete fabrication. But it’s easy to see how that one came about. Waldeinsamkeit is an actual word (the feeling of being alone in the woods). Kohleinsamkeit is an actual word (a lonely cabbage). Somehow they both got mixed together.

Let’s take a look at a handful of untranslatable words about nature, and sort the wheat from the chaff (ah, wheat-chaff-sorting! Tarwekafschiften, in Dutch, if it were translatable, which it’s not).

1.
Poronkusema (Finnish, noun): The distance a reindeer can comfortably travel before taking a break to pee. Real word.

Napermasoaken (Finnish, noun): The chance that your socks will dry out by the time you have to break camp. Absolute rubbish.

2.
Gurfa (Arabic, noun): The amount of water that can be scooped up in one hand. Real word.

Aghniathubi aljamal (Arabic, noun phrase): Suggestive sounds made by a camel. Nonsense.

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Apple blossom, Godegh Kerwys — only standing in for a cherry

Some well-known expressions brilliantly embody concepts elusive in English. The word wistfulness reaches for and falls short of the complexity of the Japanese term “mono no aware”, a sort of appreciative sadness at the impermanence of life — and not just life itself but the passing of beauty, cherry blossoms come and gone, lost love, lost youth, an empty chair, a child grown. An existential lack confronted and sweetened with memory. Words and phrases of substance like these argue against embellishment. As others have said, when we gild a word like tenlach in Disneyfied, gooey-eyed Celtiphilia we’ve wronged a perfectly wonderful word for a fireplace or a household.

That said, we have to make a distinction between words distorted and words crafted. John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows fills a void while allowing us to delight in the alchemical hold language has on us. Koenig is not trying to convince us that a word existed once in ancient lore, but that a well-made word should exist for a common sensation, and we’ve just missed the boat until now. His dictionary is humanistic at heart, on the surface a foundry for new expression, but more deeply and importantly, a recognition of experience shared, with all its ambiguity and nuance. His is not the only record of neologisms: the Oxford English Dictionary has been recording them for years. Absquatulate: to leave abruptly. Bloviate: to speak pompously — both playful 19th century Americanisms that have somehow crept into the language half-seriously, like a party-goer in a rooster costume who tries to convince everyone else at the reception that he hadn’t misread the invitation at all. He just thought it would be jolly fun. And it has been fun, but I gotta vamoose (vamoose, from the translatable Spanish meaning “let’s go!”, and also, like absquatulate, dating from the 1800s in the U.S.). Fact is, I only came to say I must be going.

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