| This just appeared in the Toronto Star || Oct 3, 2005 |
Been tingoed lately?
New book celebrates words and phrases from around the world that have no English equivalent
Ours is a rich and inventive language, but you can't help feeling maybe we're missing out
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein may have said it best: "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
Rich and ever-mutating the English language may be, but often it lacks the mot juste. And oh, the frustration, when you can't put a name to objects or experiences because the word for them simply doesn't exist.
Granted, somebody a while back finally tracked down the word for that space between your nose and upper lip — the philtrum — but English, for all its Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norman and Germanic roots, is missing out on a multitude of others.
You know when you laugh so hard one side of your abdomen hurts? Of course you do. But what's the word for it? No?
The Japanese neatly call it katahara itai.
Or what about the guilt-ridden husband who buys a present for his wife? Sort of like a kiss-and-make-up gift, but not really because there wasn't a fight between them just his misbehaviour which she found out about?
In English, it takes 27 words to say what you mean. German, most surprisingly, does it in one: drachenfutter. Okay, it literally translates as "dragon fodder," but it serves the purpose in context.
In fact, German's propensity for compound words is a boon for writers. Kummerspeck literally means "grief bacon," but is used when someone gains weight from emotional overeating.
Then there's backpfeifengesicht, for a face that cries out to be punched.
Skimmed any stones across water lately? In Dutch, you'd be plimpplamppletteren.
Fed up with the neko-neko at the office? It's Indonesian for the person whose ideas only make things worse.
English can certainly describe each phenomenon, but for all its 650,000-word vocabulary, it hasn't a clue what to call them.
The examples come from a book that has yet to be released in Canada called The Meaning of Tingo, by BBC researcher Adam Jacot de Boinod. After trawling the dictionaries of 154 of the world's languages, he maintains that a country's lingo tells more about its culture, even its economy, than any travel guide.
Like the Inuit and their myriad words for snow, Albanians apparently have an obsession with facial hair: 27 words for mustaches — hanging up, hanging down, bushy, thin, pointed, et al. — and another 27 for eyebrows. Not to be outdone, Hawaiians have 47 words for bananas, while Argentinian gauchos use 80 to 100 different words for horses.
"What I'm trying to do is celebrate the joy of foreign words," says de Boinod. "While English is a great language, one shouldn't be surprised there are many others having, as they do, words with no English equivalent."
He thinks English should incorporate more than it does. The wonderful Italian word for someone tanned by sun lamp, slampadato, for example. Or the Russian word for that feeling one has for a former lover no longer loved: razbliuto.
But what of koshatnik, Russian for seller of dead cats, or cigerci, Turkish for a seller of liver and lungs?
Perhaps not those two — not when finding a name for something is a way of conjuring its existence. Which is what translators spend their lives doing.
Hugh Hazelton, poet, professor of Spanish translation and civilization at Concordia University, and translator of numerous Latin American literary works into English, says that for centuries translation meant purely word-for-word exchange.
"Then it became sense for sense. Now we look for a combination of the two. Not too literal or too open, no `creative' translations.
"You have to be faithful to the text, but the English has to be fluent, too."
What happens when a word is untranslatable?
"You have to go on the premise that everything can be translated," he says emphatically.
It may not be easy, but it's better than employing the foreign word with an explanation; the kindly mahj, say, (Persian for looking beautiful after overcoming a disease).
Hazelton, who will chair next month's conference in Montreal of the Canadian and American literary translators associations, says literary works can't be peppered with bracketed definitions or, worse, footnotes: "If you explain a lot," he says, "it slows down the text."
That's why he teaches students that they must understand the country of a work's origin, its sociology, politics, history, even slang — though not in order — to transfer it over to English slang, which quickly dates.
Authors and publishers seek out people with knowledge of the culture and affinity for it. Spanish, for instance, may be spoken in 21 countries, but each has its own linguistic idiosyncrasies. "You wouldn't hire a Spaniard to translate a Mexican novel."
Hazelton is in the midst of translating an Argentinian novel partly written in Buenos Aires slang, partly in Spanish and partly in the author's own, newly minted words. A sort of Hispanic Finnegans Wake. As always he's walking the thin line between almost the right word and just the right word.
He enjoys the challenge, he says, "but the slang is hard, it's like translating rap."
Some of the material Brian Mossop has to translate might as well be rap.
Working for the Canadian government's translation bureau means rendering all manner of scientific, medical, legal and political documents into either English or French, much of it highly specialized.
"The problem is to understand the area you're working in," Mossop says.
"You have to research the subject matter, which used to mean my putting on my coat and heading over to the University of Toronto library. Now, fortunately, there is the Internet."
Unlike those working in literary translation, Mossop's "authors" aren't writers, but experts in their field.
"Some write dreadfully," he says, laughing. "They use professional jargon or make up their own expressions. Often you have to ask them what it is they mean in order to get the sense, not just the words, across."
Conversely, the inclusion of a foreign word when there's no corresponding English word is not a problem in non-literary work, he says. The word is used with an explanation on the first reference, not unlike newspapers which explained perestroika for a while, then it used it on its own.
"There is a difference between a thinking translator and a mere word engineer," says Mossop, who also teaches at York University, one of 10 schools in Canada with degree courses in translation. Only the University of Ottawa offers a course in simultaneous interpreting, the oral form of translating.
Missing English equivalents are a major headache for interpreters. It's partly why they work in pairs, working only 20 minutes at a time before handing off the work and taking a mental rest from listening and speaking at the same time.
The last thing they'd need is someone speaking Pascuense and dropping the word tingo into his speech.
An invaluable word on Easter Island, it means, as Adam Jacot de Boinod explains, "to borrow objects one by one from a friend's house until nothing is left."
Some real gems in there I'm sure, however I'm curious.... Perhaps I'm out of touch, but I'm pretty sure that "razbliuto" is not a word (although it resembles the term "razliubit" - "to fall out of love with") and I had no idea that koshatnik meant "seller of dead cats", I thought it was a cat lover or cat breeder (perhaps the writer was confused by a recent story about a German inventor who makes diesel fuel out of dead cats - just 20 of them per tankful...)
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