I am kind of obsessed with untranslatable and deeply culturally imbedded words. They are some of my favorite things about languages. I’ve been keeping a collection of these words in various languages for a couple of years now and one day it suddenly struck me that I didn’t have to find joy in them alone – I could share them. And so the Words Beyond Translation series was born.
In this new Gladly Global blog series, I will be sharing some of my favourite unique words across cultures. These are all words that I can personally relate to and among them, I am sure that you will find words that describe things that you can relate to as well. Part 1 (this post) will discuss untranslatable words related to anticipation and recollection. In future installments, we will dive into untranslatable words related to relationships, life philosophy, seasons and nature.
When you’re in the beginning stage of learning a new language, it can be pretty easy to feel disconnected from it. Different cultures have different values, aesthetics and traditions and it can take some time to fully become accustomed with it all. However, I have also found the opposite to be true during my language learning journey: you don’t have to be fluent in a language to be emotionally engaged in it. Languages are, at its core, are a product of humanity. They reflect us – our daily life, our values, and our perceptions. While unique culturally embedded words (words that are unique to a language and untranslatable) have the power to let you perceive things from new perspectives, the contrary is also true: these words can speak directly to your personal experience (‘’oh, so there is a word for this feeling or phenomenon!’’) and you can find comfort in them. When I found out that Japanese has a word for the act of buying new books without having read the books that I already own (tsundoku), I felt incredibly called out. But the thought that I’m not the only one who does this also put a grin on my face.
We cannot separate language learning from identity. Learning languages is like filling our personal mosaic. The more we engage in languages, the more pieces we fill. I’m always on a quest to find out if there is a word that captures exactly what I’m feeling. (And guess what, Japanese has a word that totally fits this context: Shoshin – looking at the world with a sense of wonder.) Personally, whenever I find such words that are new yet not unfamiliar, I feel a sense of connection to the outer world. It makes me feel understood and it makes me feel a sense of belonging and I hope to pass on that feeling in this post and in our upcoming posts!
1. Vorfreude (German)
Vorfreude in German, also voorpret in Dutch, is a word that expresses the joy you experience in anticipation of something fun. Vor and voor translate to before, and Freude and pret can be translated as joy. Together this ”before fun” can be used to express anything you are looking forward to. In Dutch, you can also express this anticipation with a verb: voorgenieten.
2. Napret (Dutch)
In a similar fashion, Dutch also has term to express the joy you experience in reliving something that brought you joy: napret. You might being wondering if Nachfreude, then, is a thing in German – but it is not.
Voorpret and napret follow the same logic: na is after, whereas pret, as we have just seen, means joy. This ‘’after joy’’ is not something that is used to refer to something that happened years ago; it is used within a short time frame. For example: imagine going on an amazing city trip with people you love and having an amazing time – reliving all these joyful moments in your head the weeks after your city trip is napret.
3. Natsukashii (Japanese)
A more nostalgic term is natsukashii. Natsukashii comes from the verb ‘’natsuku’’, which means ‘’to become attached to’’ or ‘’become affectionate with’’, which is illustrated by the many meanings of the Chinese character that represents ‘’natsu’’:
The English nostalgia is a rough translation, but whereas nostalgia also comes with feelings of sadness from a longing to return to a time when things were good, natsukashii is all about gratitude and happiness for the past. At its core, natsukashii is a reminder to be grateful for the experiences you’ve had in life. It has a deeply embedded connotation of joy and gratitude for the past rather than a desire to return to it.
4. Fuubutsushi (Japanese)
Autumn is my favorite season. Seeing the first leaves on the ground, noticing how the air is getting crisper and how the days are getting shorter gets me all excited about autumn, even when it is in fact still summer. Japanese has a word that expresses things that evoke memories or anticipation of a particular season: fuubutsushi.
The Japanese appreciation of the impermanence of things and life in general is reflected in its language and culture as well. On that note, the Japanese concept of 72 microseasons (yes, as many as 72!) might be interesting to look into as well.
I hope you enjoyed reading this post and that it made you learn something new. We are curious about your favorite untranslatable words – whether it be in your native or target language(s). Let us know your favorite word in the comments, through social media (IG @gladlyglobal_, Twitter @gladlyglobal) or let’s delve into this deeper in a discussion on our free Gladly Global Discord Server.