Naturally, it’s a book.
It’s called “Lost in Translation” and no, it’s not about Bill Murray finding it a tough go in Tokyo.
The author Ella Frances Sanders captures words from various languages around the world that defy translation.
Yiddish contributes three words without even tapping the classic impossible-to-define “mensch.” My grandmother on my mom’s side who spoke Yiddish would say the closest description she could find in English was “someone who always seems to do the right thing” immediately followed by a “but that’s not quite it.”
On the other hand, “Lost in Translation” does give us a Yiddish word that I never heard my Grandma utter, “Trepverter” which loosely translates in English as:
“Frustratingly, you always think of the best line as you’re walking away. As usual, that sarcastic and biting — yet hilarious — comeback occurs to you only as you turn the corner, or have reached the bottom of the stairs. The word literally means “staircase words.”
The storytelling in the book is industrial grade. As both writer and illustrator, Frances Sanders harmonizes the words and visuals with understated wit.
Where else can you learn that Indonesian has a word that describes a joke that’s so darn bad — could be the content or the delivery or both — that it’s actually funny.
I believe I’ll get some use out of this one over the holiday break.
The book’s introduction dusts off the quote from Eckhart Tolle, “Words reduce reality to something the human mind can grasp, which isn’t very much.”
Frances Sanders doesn’t buy it:
“Words allow us to grasp and hold onto an extraordinary amount. Sure, all languages can be picked apart and reduced to just a few vowels or symbols or sounds, but the ability that language gives us is incredibly complex. There may be some small essential gaps in your mother tongue, but never fear; you can look to other languages to define what you’re feeling …”
P.S. My brother and I had some fun with Yiddish growing up, inventing a word that never gained traction outside of our household — “Schmutz,” describing an individual who is equal parts “schmuck” and “putz.”