Most English-speakers think of English as an extraordinarily well-endowed language, equipped with words for every occasion and situation, if only one knew them. After all, English has an exhaustive vocabulary of more than 750,000 words. Yet there are numerous words in other languages to express ideas, concepts and emotions for which there is no English equivalent.
As a speaker of Malayalam, the language of India’s Kerala state, I have been struck by some Malayalam terms for which there is no equivalent in English. Of these my favourite is ethramathe. Malayalis are hardly reputed as mathematical geniuses, but the coinage of this numerate word was an act of genius. Imagine you have to identify a person, an item or an object by their position in a long line of similar people, items or objects. You go to pick up a rental car, for instance, and are told you can collect it from a row of cars in a parking lot. In English you would have to ask “in which [number] position is my car parked?” to elicit the answer “it’s the ninth car in that row”. In Malayalam one word covers the idea — ethramathe. “Ethramathe vandi aane?” you ask, and your car is identified for you by its exact spot in numerical order.
Numbering doesn’t always call for such precision, however. In Swedish, lagom refers to when something is just the right amount; you don’t specify the number, but you convey its exactitude. In Sweden, lagom also represents the idea of living a balanced life. ‘Enough’ in English doesn’t measure up to lagom. Maybe ‘just right’ comes closer, but it still doesn’t convey everything the word connotes — “just enough to satisfy my needs and leave me contented”. The Swedes’ Scandinavian neighbours, the Danes, have gone farther with the word hygge. It seems hygge, pronounced hue-guh, combines cosiness, comfort, well-being, and contentment in one word. It’s meant to connote a strong feeling of comfort, security, reassurance, familiarity and even kinship if you’re among loved ones.
But when things are not right, and you can’t properly express it, you have to turn to Russian, for toska. As the famous novelist Vladimir Nabokov explained it: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining…” In English you could try melancholia, but Russians swear that doesn’t go far enough, because toska is an inexplicable sadness, undirected at anyone or anything in particular, and implies a feeling of deep longing or wistful sadness without any coherent reason.
The Portuguese have a term that comes closer than any in English: saudade. It’s a sombre term with many definitions in English, but no equivalent, conveying as it does a beautiful, bittersweet longing for something absent in your life, maybe something you have never even experienced — or have experienced once, loved and lost, and may never experience again. There are many tinges of nuance to saudade that Portuguese-speaking people tell you cannot be rendered in English. A feeling of saudade is more than nostalgia, not just bitter-sweetness; it has elements of love, happiness, sadness, hope, emptiness and desire. The writer Manuel de Melo describes it as “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy”. In other words, there isn’t another word for it. It is just saudade.
I suppose the truth is that English just isn’t as good at conveying emotions as some other languages are! We’ve already encountered, in this column, schadenfreude (the German word for the malicious pleasure you enjoy at another person’s suffering). It’s so much better than the English equivalent epicaricacy that practically no one uses the latter. But the most untranslatable emotion of all must be Mamihlapinatapai — a word in the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Latin America. According to Atlas Obscura, Mamihlapinatapai describes “a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other would initiate something that they both desire, but which neither wants to begin”. Try expressing that in one English word!
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