Do you struggle to understand some concepts, words or even sentences in the foreign language you are learning?
Maybe it is time to read the weirdest book the twenty-first century ever published so far:
Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon.
Written by a French philologist, Barbara Cassin, this fantastic and interesting book is also available in its English version by Princeton University Press.
According to the author, there are significant and untranslatable differences among languages.
Here are some examples you can come across in the book :
1. Histoire in French means History and Story in English. So the tie between history and story could be deeper in French. Nonetheless, histories are made of several small stories.
2. Some words are immediately linked to some specific authors. Somebody says Spleen, and straightway we all think about Bauldelaire or Shakespeare. The latter took it out of ancient medicine, giving it the new meaning of “masculine overcharge”. Some centuries later, Baudelarire wrote Fleurs du Mal, adding to its original meaning a layer of irritation.
Sprezzatura. This is The untranslatable word. It sounds Italian, but it is not known among Italian native speakers. The author explains that this word is a “self-conscious invention by the sixteenth- century writer Baldassare Castiglione, to label his own idiosyncratic concept of a gentleman’s seeming indifference to polish”.
Spirituel in French means witty, not spiritual. It is a real etymological accident. Again Shakespeare can help us: Brutus said that Anthony has a “quick spirit”, he means is not very good.
5. Liberal in French does not have the same English meaning. Let’s use a simple example to explain that: a liberal person in Australia does not vote a left party. It is a historical difference. So speaking up for liberty means speaking against the state, in France. In other English-speaking countries, it might be exactly the opposite.
6. The Romanian word dor which means roughly longing, but it is precise definition is “a lyrical expression of the feeling of finitude, between folk metaphysics and philosophical reflection, and self’ consciously Romanian”. What? Yes, I thought the same the first time I read that.
This term derives from dolus, a vernacular, probably Latin-based, noun which means suffering. But dor is even something more particular than its original word.
In this catchy book, there is also room for bilingualism.The writer says bilingual people tell stories in two languages, but in a different way. Russian émigrés, for example, use more collective nouns when they are speaking in Russian, and individual ones in English.
In conclusion, we do not speak German, Arabic or Spanish if we do not know the way to speak German, Arabic, and Spanish. For example, gender properties of Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian and, the usually forgotten, Romansh) gives students a hard time. Why mesa is female and coche is masculine? Nobody seems to know.
But please do not think English non-native speakers have a simple life. English is an odd language for foreigners too: future tense is conjugated as an act of will (e.g. I will be going earlier).
And… well, you should read the book now.