There’s a Word for That: Translating the Untranslatable

Komorebi is a word I’ve been searching for all my life. It comes up often in the poems and stories I write–where I take a paragraph to describe something the Japanese have packed into a single gorgeous word.

I grew up in northern California about a three-hour drive from my grandparents’ house in Carson City, Nevada. To get there, we’d drive through mountain roads guarded by tall trees. Because it was California and Nevada, it was inevitably sunny outside, but the forest had a way of taking that sunlight and creating shade. Not everywhere, though. There was sun that escaped all the way to ground level, where it would greet me in the backseat of the car. It would make patterns against the inside of my eyelids as I daydreamed in unison with the scene outside–a scene that shifted from sun to shade with every turn of the wheel on the pavement. As a child, there was nothing more pleasurable than a nap in the backseat on the way to grandma and grandpa’s house. The reason, of course, was komorebi.


I found this word and accompanying illustration from a collection of 30 untranslatable words. And if I’ve done well in my description above, I’ve given you a touch of fernweh, which is not a tropical disease, but rather the German expression for “feeling homesick for a place you’ve never been to”. It’s an affliction caused by copious amounts of literature and cinema, which leads some into believing that in a past life they must have been a marshal in the Old West or a ferry boat captain along the Nile or even a ballerina in Russia. (See also: Midnight in Paris.)

A buildup of fernweh in your system might be perceived by Koreans as won, the reluctance to let go of an illusion, kind of like Republicans who still tout trickle-down economics.

There are a million fantastic expressions out there waiting to be discovered. While you could become a polyglot, you might find the process a bit time-consuming. Alternatively, you could begin incorporating some of these words into your vocabulary, but then you’d still have to explain to your hair stylist that when you say you don’t want to age-otori, it means that you don’t want to look worse after leaving the salon than you did when you stepped in. And I’m sure your friends would be confused if you told them you want to utepils, which means, of course, to enjoy sitting in the sun with a beer.

Rather than face the hardship of learning a new language or going against the grain and inserting foreign words into our everyday speech (which, if we were French, would be verboten, by the way), we should feel free to innovate and make our own new expressions. This is not new. Ten years ago, “buzzworthy”, “girl crush” and “unibrow” weren’t in the dictionary, but now most everyone knows what they are.

Do you wish there was a word to express the anxiety you feel when the person two places ahead of you at the grocery line moves forward but the person directly in front of you doesn’t step up to fill the empty space? Make one up. Perhaps you struggle to explain the static-y sound you get in one ear after you’ve been in the pool. Make a word up. Maybe you wish there was a way to describe the compulsion you feel to always give three examples when two would do just as nicely. Make a word up. A good new English word–like “unibrow”–needs little explanation and will catch on if it’s buzzworthy. Then again, if all the poetry and beautiful writing in the world could be condensed into mere word-sized kernels, would we still need poets and writers? I’d say yes, if only because we’d want someone who could describe the bittersweet nature of a fleeting moment of incomparable beauty. There’s a word for that, too, you know.


1 Comment There’s a Word for That: Translating the Untranslatable

  1. Pingback: Poem: Back Roads | Serial Monography

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