There come times when the English language proves less than equipped for conveying your moods and innermost desires. If you’ve ever faltered mid-sentence explaining, say, slippery feelings of anguish or even alcoholism, then hit a linguistic brick wall and raised your fists in frustration, you know what I mean. English, it seems, all too easily cowers before the ineffable.
Or does it? The untranslatable words category has long been a Tumblr mainstay and listicle darling, but rarely are these choice examples of verbiage accompanied by visual aids. The latest of the bunch, “11 Untranslatable Words from Other Cultures,” features whimsical handmade illustrations that illuminate what English cannot — at least, not in one polysyllabic word.
The drawings, done by Ella Frances Sanders, were produced for Maptia, an online platform for sharing stories about places. The “Untranslatable Words” and their artful treatment synced perfectly with Maptia’s message, says co-founder Dorothy Sanders. The meaning of the words themselves, she tells Co.Design, “often shed light on and provoke questions around the subtleties and nuances of a people or a country.” She further cites Guy Deutscher’s book, Through the Language Glass, as the inspiration behind the project; in it, Deutscher “explores whether language directly reflects the culture of a society,” she explains. “[So] we decided it would be interesting to create an illustrated list of words that don’t have a direct translation into the English language.”
Each of the 11 words featured in Maptia’s list offers a vivid snapshot of the cultures they represent. The format was intentionally cursory, Ella Sanders says. “With the illustrations, the small postcard-like space became an important creative constraint; it was necessary for them to be simple in terms of basic representation, yet immediately evocative.” The storybook-esque scenes are populated by few objects that in some cases are more suggestive than by the letter. Nonetheless, they perfectly, if all too literally, encapsulate the words’ picturesque horizons.
It’s easy to identify with terms like komorebi (Japanese for “sunlight that filters through the leave of trees”) and pochemuchka (a Russian epithet for the annoying guy who asks a lot of questions), but harder to pin down others, such as waldeinsamkeit, the German composite for the “feeling of being alone in the woods,” or just reading Emerson’s poetic riff on it. (I don’t like the outdoors.) Don’t be surprised if mothers everywhere adopted culaccino as a vocabulary fixture.