10 Sep 2011

Is that a fish in your ear?

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.


  1. That sounds like the COOLEST book. I love stuff like that. We sprinkle our English with quite a bit of Spanish but mostly because we've learned those words in Spanish and not because the English version is lacking.

  2. We use a little Italian, but like Daisy, because we know the word and not because there is no English word.

    (My husband though is fluent in Janpanese..... Suzuki, Kawasaki, Yamaha...
    as well as Italian...Ferrari, Lamborgini, Alpha Romeo!)
    But in his vocab there is no better expressive word than Chev!

  3. I just read this post to Miss M, and watched the video with her, and now she's begging me to buy the book... oh dear, she's twisted my arm.

    We have separate words for temperature hot (atsui) and spicy hot (karai) in Japanese as well. Very useful, that. I remember once I burnt myself while cooking and yelped "itai!" (ouch). My dear hubby said, "you shouldn't say "itai" when you burn yourself. You should say, "atchii" (hot)." I replied, "but, it HURT!" :o)

    As far as the Basho haiku goes... many of the linked-to translations are fine and accurate, yet the rhythm and feeling just don't really come through in English. They all seem slightly lacking somehow. I don't know that there's really any fix for it, though.

    I think one of the most useful words that we always use in Japanese is "genki." Think Japanese grandma. I guess you could say, "lively," or "spunky" in English. "Genki" just nails it down much better. And, you touched on this with the "neba-neba" example, but we definitely use those Japanese onomatopoeic words often. We often joke how our kids' use Japanese "sound effects" even when speaking in English.

    Fascinating topic! Now, I'm off to Amazon to look for that book...

  4. We also don't have that hot problem in Spanish, picante is spicy, and caliente is hot.
    As for Pinocchio, Italian is so close to Spanish I do love reading it in Spanish. Not Alice, I have a Spanish translation, excellent, but it has notes that explain the play with words in English which I understand, and I like it even better than the English original because the notes throw some history, etc.

    One thing I say in Spanish is GUSTAR and AMAR, because in English LOVE is such a sack word, I don't like that we say I LOVE pink the same we say I LOVE you. We'd say Me gusta el rosa, y te quiero o te amo.

    Another word is 'ganas', it means to put all you have on something, I love that word, if you are talking about food, tener ganas de algo means to crave something...

    Yesterday, inspired by a Spanish saying that goes 'dar la vuelta a la tortilla', and for us Spaniards a tortilla is not the corn or flower thing for a taco but an omelet that we thus flip in the pan, I told a friend who said that her boy was playing great with Thomas the train, and as soon as she wrote that, he stopped playing that great, that as soon as you say it, it flips on you like a pancake.

    I also said once that it was like an xray of my daughter, but you don't say that in English the same friend told me, that's because in Spanish when a description fits you great that's what we say. I enjoy the idioms and seeing if they translate or not.

    And btw, I also had that misconception about the many words for snow. And there is I believe other cultures that don't have the words right and left, and I read something about how difficult for a person from a culture with the words to learn dancing in that culture, and the implications of not having those words but I kind of forgot what was being discussed.

    I surely need to check that book... I love reading this stuff too.


  5. Fascinating!
    I don't know any other language all that well, but in our family there are a couple of Dutch words we use that can't be translated: 'gezellig' which is loosely translated as 'cosy' but cosy just doesn't do it justice. Inviting, intimate, comfortable, cosy... but not quite any of those.
    Also 'lekker honge', which I don't even know how to spell, but it's what you call someone when they're eating only the tastiest bits of their food, or when they're sneaking peanut butter out of the jar, or the crunchy bits of the roast...
    We also call the dustpan-and-brush set the 'stoffer en blik' - we grew up calling it that and see no need to change!

    There are also a couple of Anangu (Pitjantjatjara) words that I still use after spending some time with them, just 'cause I like them: 'wanti' which means 'stop that' or 'go away', 'mani uwa' (give me money) and 'puntigiti' ('in the nuddy' - if I write it 'boondiggedy' it may help conjure up the right mental picture). Interestingly the Anangu language has no words for 'please' or 'thank you' - there is no concept of such. You give or receive something on obligation, so there is no requirement to thank - that was my understanding, anyway.

  6. My whole family loves words and word play, but we have plenty of scope in English. However, we do tend to enjoy malapropisms and mistakes and adopt them as our own.

    In PNG, a four-legged beast that moos is called a bulamakau. In Fiji, we saw a sign advertising "chickendux". So we think we're hilarious by pointing out "pigeondoves" and "beetlebugs" to each other.

    And thanks to Dorrie Evans, I prefer to say "beresk" than berserk, and to describe myself as ambiguous rather than ambivalent.

    Does that count?

  7. I find that very funny - we say beresk as well!! I got it from my mother!

    I am not ambiguous though...

  8. Au contraire, I would say you are one of the least ambiguous people I know!

  9. Actually English has only a few hundred words or less the rest are all forced language or borrowings from the saxon, latin, french, old spanish, indian launages (both american and india) I could go on and on, every language english has come in contact with has left its mark the beauty of english is that if someone's saying it more clearly english will borrow the word and make it her own

  10. What interesting comments!

    We use a few German dialect words here because my husband's grandparents used them and they (the words, not the grandparents) were already fixtures in his family when we got married. The German word for footstool (the kind you stand on to reach things) is Schemel, and the word we use sounds like "shummerlie." As in, "get me a shummerlie, I have to change the light bulb."

    We also have a couple of family words that have grown from the children's toddlerhood mispronounciations. One of ours had trouble with initial c and g when she was very little--so we have "tontainer" and "ta-tar" (guitar). Sounds a bit too A.A. Milne twee, but we're stuck with it now.

  11. Wow, I don't feel so educated next to your other commenters. All I thought of when reading this post was the Douglas Adams reference.

    We do have cugs and huddles here due to the mixing up of hugs and cuddles by my now 6 year old when he was 2 but that is as interesting as we get.

    Loved reading about everyone's special family languages.

    Best wishes
    Jen in NSW

  12. I have been off~line & missed this! One of my favourite ways to play! PNG & some of the northern indigenous tribes use the term sou~sou [ literally *milk*] to refer to breastfeeding ~ such a cosy, friendly, specific term that my whole extended family use. Otherwise we use a smattering of French, a little German & some Gaelic. As my Star says, German always sounds rude, even when you are having a polite conversation! Gaelic is a little the same way & interesting as it is a gender language & certain words are male for the id & female for the ego ~ or the other way round; I tend to forget. Fascinating.

  13. I'm slowly catching up on your blog, and I just had to comment on one of my favorite subjects: languages! :-)

    We definitely mix languages here. My favorite story about that is from the first time my (American) mother visited us in Moscow. She really enjoyed the whatever-you-call-it that you find in every kitchen in this part of the world... electric teapot? Jug? Anyway, we call it by its Russian name--chainik--even when we're speaking English. When Mom went home, she wrote and told me that she had bought herself a "chainique." :-)


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