What can we learn from 'untranslatable' words?

A British researcher is tracking words related to positive psychology but considered 'untranslatable' into English, hoping they can shed light on wellbeing.

Charles Krupa/AP/File
Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster Inc., thumbs through the files at the dictionary publisher's headquarters in Springfield, Mass., in August 2011. A researcher in positive psychology is tracking words that are considered "untranslatable" into English in an effort to add additional non-Western cultures and practices into the discipline.

Have you ever felt Treppenwitz? For non-German speakers, the word may be unfamiliar, but the feeling is not: coming up with a witty remark, or tossed off joke, that occurs to you only seconds too late.

It's a translation of the 18th century French phrase l'esprit de l'escalier (or “wit of the staircase”), while the closest English equivalent is perhaps a “comeback.”

But with its exact meanings ranging from a personal circumstance to an irony of history – when an official who campaigned for peace instead declares war, for example – Treppenwitz is one of many words considered “untranslatable,” without an English equivalent that conveys the same meaning. 

Now, Tim Lomas, a researcher at the University of East London, is attempting to track a specific set of these words: ones that relate to positive psychology, a field that often focuses on the study of “flourishing” or wellbeing, he writes in Scientific American. Positive psychology research has been applied to aiding US Army soldiers coping with the stresses of war, or helping students avoid struggles with anxiety or depression, for example. 

By creating an index of these words, Dr. Lomas hopes to improve understanding and research into positive psychology, as well as bringing in beneficial ideas from other cultures that researchers may not have thought of previously.

“While the field has generally been well-received since its inception, it has drawn some perceptive critiques,” he writes. “Prominent among these is that its constructions of wellbeing have been shaped by the Western cultural context in which the field emerged. Now, though, the field is becoming more attuned to variation in how wellbeing is conceived and experienced in other cultures.”

That lack of diversity is a concern shared by some linguists. “Most language studies are more focused on W.E.I.R.D. society, Western Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic,” Hyejin Youn of the Santa Fe Institute, who conducted a study looking at how the meanings of words involve and relate to each other, told The Christian Science Monitor in February.

In an article published in January in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Lomas identified 216 words, grouping them thematically into a variety of categories, such as “feelings,” “relationships” and “character.” Since then, his list has grown to 601 words in 72 languages, he writes. But that’s out of about 7,000 languages spoken around the world. 

The words reveal a variety of nuances and values that some cultures share, Lomas writes in the January article. The Sanskrit word karuna and the Hebrew koev halev, for example, refer to identifying with the suffering of others closely enough that “one’s own heart aches in sympathy.”

Other cultures define similar emotions based on different cultural contexts. The Portuguese word saudade, he writes, is a melancholy longing for a faraway person, place, or thing, either in terms of space or time. In Japanese, by contrast, natsukashii is a nostalgic longing for the past that combines both happiness for a fond memory, yet sadness that it is only a memory.

In rare cases, he writes, “untranslatable” words such as the German Sehnsucht, or “life longings,” have been applied to research in developmental psychology. That is the type of research Lomas says he hopes to encourage by collecting the words into what he calls a “positive cross-cultural lexicography.”

Previously, linguists have found that the environments in which particular languages were used has also shaped their characteristics. 

In a more physically disrupted environment, such as a forest with dense trees and hills, languages tend to have more steady sounds, particularly vowels, Ian Maddieson, a phonetician and linguist, told the Monitor in November. That also means that as groups migrate, their language also evolves, though likely only slowly over many generations.

Describing the English language as a melting pot made of words borrowed and eventually “assimilated” from many languages, Lomas says many of the words he has identified began as a mystery to him. Others had meanings that he could identify but couldn’t precisely define when he first discovered them.

But that’s a benefit, he writes, pointing to a French word that indicates a mix of excitement and fear.

“Even as it is though, there is a certain frisson from knowing such terms exist; from knowing that our world – parsed and circumscribed as it is by the limits of our vocabulary – is far more stranger and more magical than we have ever imagined,” he writes.

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