January 15, 2013

The Best Things in Life Are Untranslatable.

I awoke with a split second of intense longing.

As I woke, still half dreaming, it took some time to get my bearings. As I stood up and stretched awake, it subsided, replaced with something like contentment, but not quite. This was contentment of the pluperfect variety:

“Her longing was erased when she found a few fingerprints had been left on her heart.”

I cannot find a precise word for that. It is an itch, calmed, when the rawness of a silk dress slides against it. It is a sharp intake of the breath, followed by a slow, soft exhale. It’s yin—then yang.

I remember when I started to fall in love with words.

I liked them early on. I spoke early, learned to read easily; we were fast friends. They were fun to play with. But I remember when our love affair began. I was 12 and studying French and trying to make sense of the lyrics to “La Vie En Rose.” The first line made no sense to me:

“Des yeux qui font baisser les miens.”

“He has eyes which kiss the hands.” As I rolled it around, it was beautiful, but nonsensical to me. A French friend said it was more simply explained, “he has eyes that lower mine.” To look into someone’s eyes and feel that bit of overwhelm that makes your own eyes lower to kiss your hands.

And that was it. I was completely smitten. It isn’t just what we can do with words that fascinates me, it’s what we can’t do. It’s the untranslatable gaps and the dance we do to try to fill them.

There are words that are so wonderfully specific, that they don’t easily translate to other languages:

The Germans refer to geborgenheit, which is a state of feeling completely safe. But it’s more that that. It implies a person or people where feel surrounded, tucked in. If we have geborgenheit, we feel completely at ease and secure with life, thanks to our loved ones.

There is a word in Arabic whose beauty amazes me. Ya’aburnee means, roughly, “you bury me,” but with the intention that your love for someone is such that you could not imagine how to live if he was gone. It is a declaration that you wish him to outlive you.

Sometimes I find myself feeling, L’appel du vide, which literally means “the call of the void” in French. It is that thing inside of us that wants to leap. It’s yearning, a specific longing to dive into the unknown.

In Czech, there is potěšení, which is almost translated as happiness, but implies physical pleasure, delight. Potěšení is that sharp bubbling up of pleasure we have when tasting a pomegranate, the tingling flush that rises to our cheeks after kissing.

Then there is the Latin aemulatio, which we are all guilty of on Facebook with our constant quote sharing. Aemulatio is sort of a benevolent or honorable version of plagiarism that is intended to show honor to the writer we are “borrowing” from. (You can see the roots of our English “emulate” there.)

 And then there are the things for which we have no words at all.

The moments between asleep and awake, when we are completely physically spent but sated and happy.

The taste of a ripe peach, just picked and still sun-warmed, as you take a bite and let the juices run down your chin.

That feeling that is something between inspiration and hope, like starlight on a cloudy night that you need to strain your eyes to see.

The haunted angst of feeling like there’s something you forgot to do.

The quiet lovely pain of burning my lips and tongue on my tea.

There are 13 different words in Italian for “rain,” but I can’t find one single word that adequately describes the pleasure of dancing in it.

I don’t have sufficient words to explain the fire inside me. We find fire words like agni, tamas, raja, ganas. All of that ah, ah, ah almost captures what it means to have that essential spark inside and to open up and let it burn.

I don’t have the right words for many things, for the best things—the essential things. But the dance we do with the words we have to try and fill those gaps is the best part of all. We keep at it. We keep playing with them. But then, for the important parts, maybe it’s as Rumi said:

“Words are a pretext. It is the inner bond that draws one person to another, not words.”

For all the parts of life that are beyond words, I offer this:

Puissions-nous toujours nous encoubler.

(May we always remain tangled. Or somewhere in that vicinity…)

May we continue the elaborate dance with our words. May we never become untangled.


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