Here is something I wrote a couple of years ago:
It is 1939 and two Finnish foot soldiers are pinned down in a battle during the war between Finland and Russia.
“We’re outnumbered,” one soldier says. “There must be over forty off them and only two of us.”
“Dear God, it’ll take all day to bury them!” exclaims the other.
This story illustrates sisu; it’s a Finnish word which has no English equivalent but means something like persevering courage, grim determination refusing to be deterred by overwhelming odds, and most of all, part of Finnish character and culture. It appeared in an article by C.J. Moore, from his book ‘In Other Words’.
I’m sure every language has its own words associated with the culture of the speakers, and which cannot be directly translated into other languages. Would translating ‘a nice cup of tea’ into another tongue completely express what we mean… it is not just a cup containing tea which tastes delicious, it is much more than that. Your house has just burnt down? You need a nice cup of tea! Your long lost brother has come home from the sea, let’s sit down with a nice cup of tea, you’ve worked a double night-shift with the rest of the workforce off with the plague? You need a nice cup of tea. OK, so it’s not a single word, but at such times the single word, tea, and a raised eyebrow might convey everything you mean by ‘a nice cup of tea’
A word which I first came across in C.J.Moore’s article, and then in the writings of Lama Surya Das is Emaho! It is a Tibetan word and expresses the wonder and amazement which overcomes you at moments of clarity and reality… well, I think that’s what it means!! It certainly is an exclamation of joy and awe!
Other words in the article which are instantly recognizable but untranslatable into English a single word or phrase:
- Drachenfutter – a German word literally meaning ‘dragon fodder’; it’s the gift a husband might make to his wife when he has stayed out late or otherwise transgressed, a bunch of flowers, a box of chocolates maybe!
- Attaccabottone – we’ve all met this person, a total bore who corners you and goes on and on and on, and yet somehow you cannot escape them! There was one of those at the party I was at on New Year’s Eve! It’s an Italian word, and so apt!
- Uitwaaien – my cousin loves doing this! I hate it – it’s a Dutch word meaning ‘to walk in the wind’ for fun… fun? I can’t imagine anything worse, but she loves striding out across the landscape, the wind in her hair… It also has a less literal meaning, I think, meaning to clear your head, to take a break by doing something else for fun
- Mamihlapinatepal – this happens in my books all the time. it is a word from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego and means the sort of look two people give each other when no words are spoken but a total understanding is between them. My mum Monica and I were very good at sharing Mamihlapinatepal, and sometimes it happens between my daughter and me. I think it’s a great word, if only I could say it more fluently!