In the introduction to her book [Lost in Translation](http://www.untranslatablebook.com/), Ella Frances Sanders writes: “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”. The British designer has illustrated 50 words that have specific meanings in cultures around the world, including Mangata, Swedish for ‘the road-like reflection of the moon in the water’. (All images reprinted with permission from Lost in Translation by Ella Frances Sanders, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House LLC)
“The speed and frequency of our exchanges leave just enough room for misunderstandings … and now perhaps more than ever before, what we actually mean to say gets lost in translation.” Sanders believes the ‘untranslatable’ words can offer small moments of recognition regardless of native language. Akihi is a Hawaiian term expressing a situation familiar to many – the forgetfulness felt immediately after being given directions.
There is often poetry in labelling the intangible: the Welsh term Hiraeth has similarities with the word ‘saudade’, describing a sense of melancholy that is supposedly characteristic of the Portuguese or Brazilian temperament, and sums up wistfulness for a place that never was. According to Sanders, learning about words like this “reminds us of how inherently human we all are—that we are all made of the same stuff, that we don’t necessarily need fluency in other languages to be able to communicate well”.
An Inuit noun, Iktsuarpok exists “somewhere between impatience and anticipation”. It sums up the “feeling that compels you to go outside and inside, and outside and then inside again, to check if someone is walking over the hill or around the corner”. As Sanders tells BBC Culture, “often these words give a name to feelings or actions that we already know and recognise. Then, someone from Brazil isn’t too different to someone from Sweden, who isn’t too different from us.”
The German expression Kummerspeck – meaning ‘grief bacon’ – refers to the excess weight gained from emotional over-eating. “Unfortunately, we are programmed to find comfort in the edible,” says Sanders. “Until you catch sight of yourself in a reflective surface a month later, it often works.”
The Japanese expression Wabi-sabi means “finding beauty in the imperfections, an acceptance of the cycle of life and death”; according to Sanders it is derived from Buddhism, which teaches that understanding “our transience and the asymmetry within our lives can lead us to a more fulfilling yet modest existence”.
Many of the words express a form of measurement specific to a certain place. The Finnish word Poronkusema describes ‘the distance a reindeer can comfortably travel before taking a break’, while Pisan Zapra is a Malay term referring to ‘the time needed to eat a banana’.
Meaning “the passing of time on a grand, cosmological scale”, Kalpa is a Sanskrit term. Sanders says: “Once you have a word for something, it becomes much more tangible, much more accessible. The shapes of your thoughts begin to include these different ways of seeing, of being.”
The Japanese expression Tsundoku, meaning “leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other unread books”, has offered reassurance to book hoarders. [One forum](http://www.shelfari.com/groups/46424/discussions/487823/The-Japanese-have-a-word-on-book-hoarding) allows avid readers to join if they have more than 1000 books – Sanders claims that “the Tsundoku scale can range from just one unread book to a serious hoard”.
“It’s nice that the Japanese think so highly of thinking about nothing at all that they actually give it a name,” says Sanders. Boketto – meaning “gazing vacantly into the distance without really thinking about anything specific” – is her favourite word; she says: “I’ve been known to do this far too often.”