Can Untranslatable Words Make Us Happier?

Can Untranslatable Words Make Us Happier?


The idea of untranslatability is captivating for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the chance to try on another culture’s way of experiencing the world. As the popular anecdote goes, how does an Eskimo or Inuit look at snow, when there are dozens of words to describe each slight variation of it? Just like the example is somewhat dubious (we’re talking about lexemic variation here, along the lines of ‘snowflake’ and ‘snowfall’ in English), so is the notion of untranslatability. Can poring over dictionaries in search of ‘untranslatable’ words garner any useful scientific results?

Enter Dr. Tim Lomas, a lecturer in Positive Psychology at the University of East London. In a paper published earlier this year in The Journal of Positive Psychology, Lomas set his sights on something grander than sharing a few choice terms that lack direct equivalents in English. He is a practitioner of positive psychology, after all, and so asks the question: Can learning about ‘untranslatable’ words actually enrich one’s cultural understanding? Can that new knowledge, in turn, expand one’s ‘emotional vocabulary’ and lead to a more robust experience of personal well-being?

Undeniably, reading through Lomas’ treasure trove of ‘untranslatable’ words stirs up a certain sense of loveliness – sabsung, if you will (Thai: feeling rejuvenated by something that livens up one’s life). As the name suggests, the Positive Lexicography Project is a celebration of all that is joyful, cozy, soothing, passionate, hopeful, and righteous around the world. This list of 216 words for positive emotional states, attributes, and circumstances is intended to be a living and evolving document, with upbeat additions and amendments encouraged. Here are 20 of the most gorgeous words plucked from the Positive Lexicography Project:

Charming Scenarios

Bilita mpash (Bantu): a beautiful, blissful dream; the opposite of a nightmare

Cynefin (Welsh): a place where one feels one ought to live; or, the relationship one has to the place where one was born or feels at home

Feierabend (German): the festive mood at the end of a working day

Gökotta (Swedish): waking up in the early morning to listen to birdsong

Gumusservi (Turkish): the glimmer of moonlight on the surface of water

Kukelure (Norwegian): to sit and ponder without engaging in activity

Samar (سمر) (Arabic): to sit together and converse in the evening, usually at sunset

Sobremesa (Spanish): when the meal has been eaten but the conversation is still flowing

Sólarfrí (Icelandic): when workers are granted unexpected time off to enjoy a particularly warm or sunny day

Tyvsmake (Norwegian): to taste or eat small pieces of food when you think nobody is watching, especially while cooking

Admirable Traits

Brav (German): children who are pleasant, earnest, and well-behaved

Desenrascanço (Portuguese): to artfully disentangle oneself from a troublesome situation

Míng mù (瞑目) (Chinese): to die without regret, having lived a good life

Nunchi (눈치) (Korean): the ability to ‘read’ emotions and situations and to respond skillfully; ‘eye-measure’

Pihentagyú (Hungarian): being quick-witted and sharp; having a ‘relaxed brain’

Qì zhì (气质) (Chinese): possessing a quality of character, disposition, style, charm, attractiveness, magnetism

Sitzfleisch (German): the ability to persevere through hard or boring tasks; literally ‘sit meat’

Sprezzatura (Italian): nonchalance, art, and effort that are concealed beneath a studied carelessness

Ta’ârof (تعارف) (Farsi): politeness, hospitality, and social intelligence, particularly in relation to receiving and offering gifts

Wú wéi (無為) (Chinese): acting in accordance with the Tao; being natural and effortless; literally to ‘do nothing’

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