Saturday, January 22, 2005

Words cannot express

I am an occasional copyeditor (you'd hardly know it from my blog, I acknowledge), and one of my copyediting pet peeves is when someone writes something like "words can't express how I felt" or "it's impossible to put into words..." I always think, "So why are you writing this? Go into film-making or something, why don't you." Most of the time, that sort of statement is just a linguistic cop-out.

But...sometimes you really can't put it into words. NPR has a brief piece on In Other Words, a book of "untranslatable" words. There are a few that I think we should take up in the political public sphere. This one, for example, provides the most concise explanation for term limits I've ever encountered:
ilunga (Tshiluba) [ee-Iun-ga] (noun)

This word from the Tshiluba language of the Republic of Congo has topped a list drawn up with the help of one thousand translators as the most untranslatable word in the world. It describes a person who is ready to forgive any transgression a first time and then to tolerate it for a second time, but never for a third time.
And Japanese gives us language to describe our policies in the Middle East:
tatemae [tah-tay-mye] (noun)

A term often translated as "form," but it also has the specific cultural meaning of "the reality that everyone professes to be true, even though they may not privately believe it." For privately held views, the Japanese have a different term, honne, meaning, "the reality that you hold inwardly to be true, even though you would never admit it publicly."
And then there is this rather ominous discovery about an English word with no equivalent: "Arabic has no word for 'compromise' in the sense of reaching an arrangement via struggle and disagreement."

Once again, I say: it's going to be a long four years.

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