Facing Torschlusspanik

by aengelson | December 14th, 2010

Not to long ago, a friend forwarded a link to an article describing “Twenty Awesomely Untranslatable Words.”

It’s a good list. Of course, these twenty words aren’t literally untranslatable, just that the concept behind each word is complex enough that a single word-for-word translation into English is difficult, if not impossible. I look forward to incorporating some of these into my lexicon, and one of the words, schadenfreude, has already entered English. That’s the strength of the English language and why it’s become the lingua franca around the world–we readily import and adopt words when needed. It’s constantly absorbing and growing, a multicultural language machine that adds new parts and new gears as necessary.

Although I suspect we won’t be using iktsuarpok any time soon. It’s an Inuit word meaning “going outside to see if anyone is coming.” In the age of e-mail, text messages, social media, and doorbells, that concept probably isn’t in high demand. But I suppose if you live in an igloo without a DSL connection…

Two words on this list have been occupying my mind for a few weeks since I first read this article.

The first is litost, a Czech word. From what I understand, it has to do with feeling misery for someone (or oneself) after feeling a deep sense of empathy. I have a several Czech friends here in Hanoi, and they’ve tried to help me understand it. Milan Kundera, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, wrote in detail about litost, and came to the conclusion there was no equivalent concept in French or English. He described litost as a feeling agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery. When you sense an inadequacy in yourself, Kundera wrote, you often begin to lash out at the world or others around you. Litost is often a product of youth or inexperience, although middle age is certainly not immune.

On the topic of middle age, another word on the list that caught my attention is torschlusspanik, a German word that literally means “gate-closing panic.” It’s the sense one gets in mid-life that opportunities are starting to disappear. It’s the realization that you may not accomplish everything you thought you might do in your life. At 42, that resonates pretty strongly. I suppose torschlusspanik is why I’m here in Hanoi trying to write my first novel, not content to give up on that goal just yet. Mid-life is a difficult but fascinating time. And I’m goaded on by a haiku by the Japanese poet Basho that I first read many years ago, and which seems to gain urgency as time creeps on:

A caterpillar
This late in autumn
Still not a butterfly.

3 Responses to “Facing Torschlusspanik”

  1. Nice piece. One hopes that when facing torschlusspanik the litost doesn’t last long but shifts, somehow, imperceptibly, into wabi-sabi. Hyggelig helps.

  2. This is a great topic. Love the incorporation of foreign words. The Chinese got “romantic” from us. We got “kowtow” from them. Fair trade.

    One of my favorites from Mandarin Chinese, probably untranslated more than untranslatable, is “sa jao,” a verb: to make one’s voice extra sweet to get something one desires. It’s primarily used for children and women.

    What English or French words has Vietnamese incorporated? What Vietnamese words should we incorporate?

  3. @erik: Yeah, it’s fascinating. BTW, there’s a sequel to the article on 20 words that has another 20: http://matadornetwork.com/abroad/20-more-awesomely-untranslatable-words-from-around-the-world/
    Vietnam has incorporated a number of French words (mostly food) such as butter: bơ (pronounced just like “beurre”), and of course caphe.
    One phrase that’s not untranslatable but interesting is bom nổ chậm. I had asked my teacher for the phrase for unexploded bombs, since I’d just been to Quang Tri province to learn about them, and she told me as a side note that there’s an interesting idiom in Vietnamese, the one above. It literally means “bomb slow to explode” and it refers to a woman who is slow to marry, still lives with her parents and hasn’t quite “blossomed” yet. I love that phrase, and I’d forgotten to include it in this post…

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About This Site

Andy Engelson is a writer and editor who lives in Hanoi, Vietnam. He's currently working on a historical novel set in the Northwest United States during World War II. He's also a freelance writer, essayist and member of the Hanoi Writer's Collective. In a former life, he edited Washington Trails magazine for six years and before that was freelance journalist. He likes to hike, travel, and play with his family.

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