Lost in Translation, by Ella Frances Sanders

The subtitle of this small book is An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World. “Words, words, words,” as Hamlet said. They can clarify or obfuscate.

This delightful book, a most welcome gift, gathers words from many languages that have no equivalent in English. Each is defined and illustrated and given a sentence or two of description. Some are words already familiar to me, such as hiraeth, a Welsh word meaning nostalgia for home, a home you’ve lost forever or perhaps one that you have not yet found.

Most, though, are new to me and are deliciously apt. One that I will use often is mangata, a Swedish word meaning “the road-like reflection of the moon in the water.” Another is meraki, a Greek adjective describing that feeling of being in the zone, of giving yourself over completely to some activity.

There are dozens of languages represented, common and obscure: German, Yiddish, Portuguese, Farsi, Inuit, Urdu, Wagaman. I love exploring these words and thinking about the experiences they embody.

In writing poetry, of course, I am always searching for just the right word, one with the right sound and the precise connotations to convey as much as possible. Each day I choose a word to roll around in the back of my mind, testing out the image it calls forth, the particular music of its pronunciation. It may be a common word, such as “lane”, or something more complex such as “palimpsest”. My reflections on many of these words and haiku using them can be found on Twitter using the hashtag #poetswords.

So this book is a treasure trove for me. I will continue to meditate on these words, giving each its due. However, I believe, given my predilection for Lagavulin, that the word I will use most often is one from the Gaelic: Sgriob, a noun that “Refers to the peculiar itchiness that settles on the upper lip before taking a sip of whiskey.”

What new word have you learned recently that interests or delights you?

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