Imagine you're at our home for dinner. I'm really excited to have you, and a little anxious that you might not like my cooking and that you won't have a pleasant experience visiting me.
You've just taken the first spoonful of what I am very much hoping you will find a delicious Spicy Coconut and Lentil Soup when your eyes open wide and you start waving your hands quickly in front of your mouth.
Oh dear, I think - have I burnt you? Or perhaps I've added too many chillis? I don't know yet.
Just then you gasp one word: Hot!
But you haven't helped me in my confusion at all. Is the soup too hot in temperature or too hot in spiciness? I don't know which you mean - I don't understand you - because in English we use the same word to describe soup of a temperature that is capable of burning and soup that is full of pungent spices that produce a tingling burning sensation when swallowed.
In Indonesia, when hostesses serve spicy soup to guests all the time, this problem wouldn't arise. If my carefully prepared soup had been too spicy you'd have gasped: Pedas! If it had been too warm you'd have choked out Panas! I would have known instantly whether to offer you a bowl of yoghurt or a glass of water.
This new book by David Bellos may not use this very example, but I'll hazard a guess that he does cite the widespread misconception that the eskimos have hundreds of words for snow.
I find this kind of discussion about language fascinating. Are there really Australian Aborigines that don't have words for left and right? How did I not know that? How dreadfully inconvenient.
How you translate between one language and another is what this book is all about.
In our home we use the words panas and pedas instead of hot when we eat as a matter of course. We use neba neba and umame as well - both Japanese words for which we have failed to find a suitable English translation. Mucilaginous and meaty don't go nearly where these words go.
If you were translating this post into say Spanish then, how would you explain what I meant in this last paragraph? How many words for hot does Spanish have? Do they have a word for umame?
When you read a book like Heidi or Pinocchio, the quality of the book will be determined almost solely on the quality of the translation. Likewise Don Quixote or a Murukame novel. How can you translate a Japanese Matsuo Bashō 松尾 芭蕉 haiku? Do you worry about the number of syllables or the imagery? Can you ever achieve both, or is Basho really just 'lost in translation'?
This page translates Bashō's famous Frog Haiku 31 different ways. Does any one of them go anywhere near the original?
I purchased Bello's Is that a Fish in your Ear today to read on my Kindle. It has heaps of potential, and the free chapters on Amazon have me excited about what the book will discuss. I'll let you know what I think.
Do your family use words from other languages to get around a deficit in English? What are they? Do share. I just love this kinda stuff.