I am clearing out some of my old books. I am giving some away to charity, some to friends, and some I am clinging to like my life depends on it. They will have to prise The God Of Small Things, The English Patient and The Other Hand (to name but a few) from my cold, dead hands. But with each book I pick up and flick through before deciding its fate, I am remembering. Where I was when I read the story, what it taught me, how far I’ve come.
In January 2006 I read Happiness by Will Ferguson. It fuelled my conviction that I was never going to be a 9 to 5-er (er…hello 24-year-old Anna. Well, this is awkward. Sorry about, you know, still working 9 to 5. But…you went to Lebanon! You write lots more now! You married an Armenian! (go fetch your atlas). You finally saw the Smashing Pumpkins live! Does that count?) The book brought up many interesting ideas, but my favourite part of it was a thread running throughout entitled “The Untranslatables”. Words that other languages have that refer to concepts in English for which we simply do not have a single term.
German is a treasure trove of these wonderful words, because it is a langauge built on logic, on sense, on rationality. When I was younger I adored “der Ohrworm” (an earworm) which denotes those songs that you hear on occasion and simply cannot get out of your head. Or “die Handschuhe” (hand shoes) which means, you guessed it, gloves. Although we do have a term for that, so ignore that one. Upon growing slightly more pretentious I fell in love with “die Schadenfreude“, of course; happiness and pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune.
But there are three particular words that Ferguson discovered that are, simply, untranslatable in their beauty.
1) The Mayans have a word. Mokita. It directly translates as “the truth which no-one speaks”. The tacit agreement amongst people not to refer to shared secrets.
2) The Japanese have what is probably one of the most beautiful words I’ve ever had the pleasure of learning. (Apologies for incorrect characters. I’m no doubt offending kanji purists). Mono-non-awaré. “The sadness of things”. The ever-present pathos that lurks beneath the surface of life.
3) And probably the saddest of them all comes from Russian. (Again, apologies for lack of Cyrillic, and no doubt terrible translation). Razbliuto. The feelings you had for someone you once loved, but now do not.
I had pencilled something into the margins of the book which took me a while to decipher. And when I did, I laughed. If only I could sit my 24-year-old self down, and tell her “listen, you’ll marry the guy, and one day have the luxury of getting annoyed with him because he didn’t fold the laundry properly, and life doesn’t have to be tragic to be interesting, okay?”
“Summer 2005 started off being flecked by inescapable mono-no-awaré, which I put down to a sad yet inevitable razbliuto which became decay, despair and an irreversable sense of mokita. Then my mono-no-awaré reached unprecidented levels and rendered my mokita futile. And then I realised that my razbliuto wasn’t quite as straightforward as I’d imagined.
And then I realised I was fucked.”
Nothing quite like an English word to get that certain je-ne-sais-quoi across. Si?