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My American friend and I were driving back from a beach in Brazil last year and he asked me to translate an old samba song. I failed with the very first sentence. I couldn’t translate my favorite word in my native language, Portuguese: saudade.
“Saudade is a bittersweet feeling of longing for a loved person or a place that is gone,” I finally said, as melancholic memories of my beloved ones forcefully surfaced in my mind. “Some people translate it as the love that remains. It is painful, yet you yearn for it because you only feel saudade when you deeply love.”
“What is your favorite untranslatable word in English?” I asked my American friend. He couldn't think of a word during our drive. I'd have to wait for my answer.
The English language has united the world by providing tools for common understanding. But it’s through asking about words that can’t be easily translated that we find a portal to our shared complexities and deepest emotions.
My interest in untranslatable words grew when I started making friends from other countries. I remember one conversation when I was a Brazilian exchange student in Paris. It was cold outside, and my Danish friend Marie was organizing a small group dinner. We were sharing stories and feeling grateful. Marie went to the kitchen and brought two candles. “Now this is truly hygge,” she said. Hygge, she explained, is a mood of coziness, comfort and contentment. I think of dim lights, candles and turtleneck sweaters.
I wished she would experience 'samar,' the Arabic word for 'staying up late after the sun has gone down and having an enjoyable time with friends.'
This was before hygge became trendy in the U.S. Since then, I’ve been actively seeking hygge moments. In Cambridge, where I am now a graduate student, my friends and I organize “hygge nights,” where we enjoy each other’s company, light candles and ask unconventional questions. If I didn’t know that hygge existed as a concept, I wouldn’t be so intentional about creating these moments that bring us so much joy.
My passion for learning untranslatable words can surface even when I’m not pursuing it. In a visit to Newbury Street some years ago, I stumbled upon a box of cards with illustrations representing unique words, drawn from the book "Lost in Translation."
I have shipped these cards all over the world, including one to a friend who had just gotten married. I wrote, in a joking way, that I was hoping he would take many years before having to send his first drachenfutter, in German, “the gift a husband gives his wife when he’s trying to make up for bad behavior.”
Another went to a friend for New Year’s Eve. I wished she would experience samar, the Arabic word for “staying up late after the sun has gone down and having an enjoyable time with friends.”
But sometimes I am the one who is gifted with the joy of words. A Filipino friend, who spent two months in my house in Cambridge during quarantine because she was lonely in a small studio, wrote me a card saying she felt utang na loob. In Tagalog, it is a debt of the heart, a strong feeling of gratitude. I couldn’t name what I felt back then, but today I would call it ubuntu, a Nguni word that Nelson Mandela described as “the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others."
Some linguists question whether any word is truly untranslatable. Noam Chomsky, for example, argues that everything can be somehow explained since we have a universal language structure. Whether or not this theory holds, my reasons for finding these words are not based on the ability to explain them.
Learning untranslatable words is realizing that something you can’t easily name exists and matters. It’s not a mere question of linguistics, but of bringing attention to peculiar angles of our human experience. It reassures us that our feelings are global. More than anything, it’s an exercise of empathy and understanding.
Learning untranslatable words is realizing that something you can’t easily name exists and matters.
The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” With each untranslatable word I learn, I grow my understanding of the human experience, and deepen my connection to others.
One month after my question to my American friend, he finally texted: “This is my answer to your question: Sonder. The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.”
This word is part of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a collection of words invented to fill a gap in the English vocabulary. I don’t mind that it isn’t in the official dictionaries. I sympathize with the thoughts of lexicographer Erin McKean: “If you love a word, use it. That makes it real.”
When I walk in Harvard Square, I know that the masks hide faces from all around the world. I wonder where each person came from, and what their stories are. I used to feel curious about them. Now I feel sonder. And I wonder what their favorite untranslatable words will tell me about them, and about us.
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