By Katherine Pisarro-Grant

Tos-ka (тоска) is notoriously known as one of Russian’s most untranslatable words. Translations include nostalgia, homesickness, ennui, melancholy, anxiety, grief, yearning, boredom, depression, longing, blues, angst, wistfulness, and ruefulness. Or, as Nabokov summed it up in the annotations of his translation of Eugene Onegin: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.” An 1886 Chekhov story titled “Тоска” is usually translated as “Misery”; a Marina Tsvetaeva poem, “Тоска по родине,” usually as “Despair for homeland.” “Despair” at least reflects the Russian iamb, conveying some of its sonic power, but both, of course, fail to transmit all the layers of meaning inherent in the original.

Of course, as between any two languages, there are a plethora of other, perhaps even more untranslatable Russian words and phrases. “Засиживаться в гостях” (zasizhivat’sya v gostyakh) can only be conveyed by explanation, not translation; it refers to staying at someone’s house and not wanting to leave because you’re enjoying the company so much. Then there’s the slang-y “перегар,” (peregar) which refers to the reek of stale alcohol the morning after, either on someone’s breath or in the room in general. Those are just a couple examples of an endless list; why, then, has toska become the most-cited example? It seems that, beyond the difficulty in finding an adequate English equivalent of the word’s meaning, the appeal of this word’s untranslatability to the Western world lies in its perceived connection to the myth of the “загадочная русская душа” (zagadochnaya russkaya dusha) – the engimatic Russian soul. The enigma of the word’s many layered meanings is what makes it so hard to translate, but its very untranslatability seems to shroud it in the exoticism and soulfulness that is historically appropriated to Russian culture and art by Western onlookers. At least one word is smoothly and easily reflected between the two languages: непереводимость (neperevodimost’) – untranslatability.