November 30, 2011

Untranslatable words


The Big Think recently published this great list of untranslatable words related to relationships. Our favourites:

Ilunga (Bantu): A person who is willing to forgive abuse the first time; tolerate it the second time, but never a third time.

Koi No Yokan (Japanese): The sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall into love.

Ya’aburnee (Arabic): “You bury me.” It’s a declaration of one’s hope that they’ll die before another person, because of how difficult it would be to live without them.

Another phrase that might prove tricky to translate is the first global Oxford English Dictionary word of the year, announced a few days ago: ‘squeezed middle’. It’s the global winner, but this one is British in origin, having been brought to fame by Ed Miliband in describing—repeatedly—the middle-class demographic most affected by government cuts and shrinking incomes. Some commentators have suggested that the phrase might be deliberately vague, almost as though politicians manipulate language in order to gain followers. Pah. Remember alarm-clock Britain? The Big Society? Invaluable additions to the language both, so precise, so helpful, so obviously not cynical catch-alls. What other political turns of phrase can we add to this list of untranslatable words, and is anyone brave enough to attempt to define them? We might even see some crossover between the romantic and political lists: I for one am all ilungaed out with this government.



Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.