Love & Untranslatability

The full version of this post was published today on Memrise, but here is most of it. If you haven't already heard of Memrise, then you will be pleased to discover that it is probably the most fabulous language learning app out there.

There has never been more of a need to translate things accurately, to translate things truthfully, and this has to coexist with the fact that languages are growing, changing, and dying all the time—shaped by humanity as it races forwards. It can be difficult to keep up with something that is always moving, but it is important to at least try. Translation at its best gives people the opportunity to acutely understand, to experience how another human being far removed from their daily life feels about something. It means we can empathise with problems we would have otherwise never known existed, and begin to comprehend the emotions of the cultures and nations which lie across oceans.

Even with the aforementioned best intentions, it can still be nigh on impossible to convey the specifically vague yet deeply-rooted emotions or thoughts of a culture or language, and therein lies the ‘untranslatable’ word. It is perhaps easiest and also most futile to try and begin to demonstrate this with love, as even within the boundaries our native tongues, we still struggle to articulate the inexhaustible facets of this word and what it ultimately means. Part of the reason for this is that love is excruciatingly subjective—we cannot study it effectively from neatly laid-out textbooks, and it is never experienced in the same way by two people. With this in mind, I’m sharing with you some examples of translated love from my two books, Lost in Translation and Speaking in Tongues.

First up is the Norwegian word forelsket, which for them pinpoints the euphoria we feel when we first begin to fall in love. The idea behind ‘untranslatable’ words is that we don’t have a direct, word-for-word translation for them, and have to grapple a little—try and explain using sentences, paragraphs, and in my case, illustrations.

Idioms are peculiar expressions that cannot be understood from the individual meanings of the words that comprise them—they are more than the sum of their parts. This, combined with the cultural differences afforded when discussing love, means that there are some extraordinary examples, like this Farsi expression. Actually a term of endearment for native speakers, jeegaretō bokhoram is a way of expressing deep affection and love and would usually be used only when speaking to close loved ones, like family members or dear friends. Its meaning is along the lines of ‘I would do anything for you’, ‘You are my heart’, or ‘I love you so much, I could just eat you up’.

To me, the fact that these words and sayings exist (whether love-related or not) is a great comfort, and I’m definitely not alone in feeling reassured by their effectiveness as a tangible reminder of our rich cultural and emotional variations. While we all have very different ideas of precisely what love is, and hold close the power to decide how it may or may not directly affect us, I think that to have a chance of leaving this place with even a little understanding of it, we need to not only get better at recognising love in all its everyday , but also learn about its untranslatability.

Although we are restricted to some extent by the words we know, in the languages we speak, it feels astonishing to learn or stumble across the right turn of phrase in a foreign tongue. We can feel better understood, more able to love, less likely to assume. 
There are certain languages that are assumed to be the ‘romantic’ ones, but I don’t think that can possibly be true—we should feel lucky that we have the option of looking into other cultures to better understand ourselves, our relationships. There is no one language of love, because there will never be exactly the right way to say it; what is said between our hearts and our heads really is untranslatable.