the meanings lie in the spaces between
To celebrate the release of Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff, I was recently interviewed by Pushkin Press for the Behind the Books feature on their website. I was asked to choose my favourite word – in any language. I thought about it literally every day for weeks. My first instinct was to go for the word I overuse more than any other in the English language: ‘whatevs’ – defined in the online urban dictionary as ‘whatever, for cool people’.
I felt that the good followers of Pushkin Press might despair at such a choice, but it started me thinking about why I enjoy this word so much. Part of it is because I can make an obnoxious W shape with my thumbs and forefingers as I say it. But mainly it is because it doesn’t really mean anything in particular, rather it is purely contextual. And, as any translator will tell you, context is everything.
When studying translation and linguistic theory I came across the notion that there are no true or ‘natural’ equivalents between words in different languages. Noted translation theorist Anthony Pym described equivalence as ‘a social illusion but a necessary one’*. General similarities in meaning can be expressed, of course, otherwise I would be out of a job. I say ‘cheese’ and the French say ‘fromage’ and we all pretty much know what the deal is. However, scratch the surface of this simplicity and it all starts to crumble apart like a mature cheddar –precisely the first thing that comes to my mind when I hear the word ‘cheese’: something hard, salty, yellow and meltable. Anything else would need a preceding qualifier: soft cheese, cream cheese, cottage cheese, blue cheese etc. But this is not inherent in the definition of the word ‘cheese’, it is simply what I think of because I am English. Words carry cultural connotations as well as technical denotations. Though the general idea is the same, the default image and the boundaries are different in every language (and perhaps in every individual mind). What is the default image of fromage? Is it something an English person would describe as ‘French cheese’? In Russian творог is used to denote soft, crumbly cheese such as cottage cheese, and сыр is closer to the cheese of my English brain.
Ask for a salad in Russia and you may well receive a gloopy bowlful of boiled potato, peas, mayonnaise and ham. That is not a salad in my book. Ask for a sandwich and a beer in Sweden and you will probably receive one slice of bread towering with toppings and a low-alcohol lager. Riots may ensue!
How are we ever supposed to find the perfect equivalents for complex, culturally-specific and abstract concepts when we can’t even agree on the basics? Take a simple word like ‘table’. How do I really know that my idea of what constitutes a table as opposed to, say, a desk is the exact equivalent of стол, ett bord, una mesa, une table etc.? Do those words include dining tables, coffee tables, writing bureaus, counter tops, dressing tables, or those school desks that double up as book storage? Where does a definition begin and end?
Translation is about negotiating appropriate approximations rather than single-mindedly hunting down the almighty perfect equivalent. Language is fluid and uncertain because it is the expression of millions of human minds. Words are boxes drawn around an arbitrary section of thin air (arbitrary is possibly my second favourite word). It is projecting lines onto blank space and hoping for the best.
So, coming back to ‘whatevs’, I realised that many of my favourite words are ones which don’t even pretend to have fixed meaning, rather which embody innate fluidity, subtlety or even absence. Words which cannot be pinned down, which represent the gap in between two points of certainty. In English these are words like: ‘arbitrary’, ‘elusive’, ‘else’, ‘beyond’, ‘void’, ‘paradox’, ‘empty’, ‘allude’ and, last but not least, ‘whatevs’. My favourite Spanish word ajeno can be translated as ‘other’, ‘different’, ‘foreign’, ‘estranged’, ‘alienated’, ‘belonging to another’ and is used to most beautifully untranslatable effect in the song Maria Lando by Susana Baca (listen here, it’s wonderful), describing the abject life of a poor woman who has no time for anything but work, y su trabajo es ajeno. My favourite Russian word недоумение is generally translated as ‘bewilderment’ or ‘puzzlement’, but break it down into its components and the meaning is so much simpler and wider: не = not; до = up to, reaching; ум = mind, intellect. Something that does not reach the mind.
Ever a fan of the building blocks of meaning, I have recently been thinking a lot about the suffixes which create adjectives. Though slippery does not mean something similar to a slipper and Kentish Town isn’t really anything like Kent, it is easy to invent adjectives with –y, –esque, –able, –ish, –ous or –ian, and each has a different effect. Most words are adjectivable and you can make your speech so adjectiveful it becomes truly adjectivesque.
Swedish is a joyously suffixful (suffixian?) language. My favourites are –färdig, –nödig and –sugen which mean to be ready for, in need of, or in want of something, respectively. This means there is one word to say that you are dying for a cup of coffee – kaffesugen – and, hilariously, one word to describe being so nauseous that you could vomit – spyfärdig (literally: ‘puke-ready’).
Anyway. You get the picture. Words are fun, definitions are tricksy, translation is hard. So what about the interview? What did I choose as my favourite word?
I finally decided on a prefix rather than a whole word. The Swedish prefix ur denotes several seemingly disparate qualities. It can mean ‘ancient’, ‘primal’, as in urväsen (primeval creature) and ‘basic’, ‘unspoiled’, as in urskog (virgin woods). There is a sense of origin, source, creation and ancestry, as in urfader (ancestor), as well as ‘out of’ or ‘away from’, such as ursinne (frenzy, literally: out of one’s mind). In this way it implies coming from something both in terms of being created by it and breaking away from it. It is also a colloquial term for ‘very’, ‘extremely’.
All these nuances point to something that is nothing in itself and yet contains the seed of everything, whether in its presence or absence – the source of all, the ultimate. The foundation and the zenith, the underlying enabler, the still-present origin. I find this interesting.
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*Pym, A., 2009, Exploring Translation Theories, Routledge