Photo courtesy of Lauter Leiblingsfilme

By Elizabeth Soto

I was trying to dig out some untranslatable words from my parents’ brains, but we weren’t getting very far, so my sister found an odd book review of a guy who makes his living out of collecting such words, and what follows are some of my favorites:
korinthenkacker [core-in-ten-cuck-er] (noun)
A “raisin pooper” — that is, someone so taken up with life’s trivial detail that they spend all day crapping raisins.

While there are several adjectives English-speakers could combine to describe the same type of person, I bet not a single attempt could come close to the effective simplicity and hilarious image of the “raisin pooper.”  Though I’ve seen a lot of posers on the internet trolling through Youtube and facebook, the most apt example I can think of is Dwight Schrute from The Office.  Now, maybe there’s a better example, but I’m sure you all know someone in your lives that lives to correct and perfect that which really doesn’t need the extra attention.  Sure, it’s important to be a Grammar Nazi in order to be part of a journal editing team, but you don’t need to scour your friends’ posts for misplaced apostrophes and the wrong “their/y’re/re’s” or “your/you’re’s”.  It’s not very efficient to poop out raisins all day when you can hold in your urges and release a larger, more satisfying load at the right time.

tatemae [tah-tay-mye] (noun)
A term often translated as “form,” but it also has the specific cultural meaning of “the reality that everyone professes to be true, even though they may not privately believe it.” For privately held views, the Japanese have a different term, honne, meaning, “the reality that you hold inwardly to be true, even though you would never admit it publicly.”

I don’t know if it’s because we’re not comfortable with admitting much of society is held together by smoothing out imperfections with white lies, or if we know but fear even admitting that we know, but I often wish we had a word comparable to tatemae.  It makes wading through the webs of lies popular media creates seem a much more feasible task by reminding everyone that they are not alone in suspecting that sometimes, the world is not as everyone says it is.  We lie to each other to feel safe, and sometimes that’s ok.  It would probably kill us to be aware of our innermost opinions and feelings at all times, in every situation.
Yet honne remains equally important.  Without it, there is no way to define ourselves apart from society or initiate the change that has advanced human society to the point we have reached today.  Now, I said initiate change, but that cannot really come about if one never voices honne, so in some ways non-Japanese people (and Japanese people too, who knows) could perceive this as a negative term because it suggests the image of someone who is too scared to voice an opinion and is thus an unproductive member of society, at least in Western thought.  However, we all know or believe in things we don’t want to talk about, whether we’re Japanese or not, so it isn’t quite fair to judge the concept so hastily.
What words have you learned that made you laugh or made you think?  Here’s a challenge: what’s an English word that cannot be translated into another language?

For more blog posts on translation, click here.