Awesomely Untranslatable Words

JANUARY 27, 2013

In the course of some recent research on working cross culturally with interpreters in mental health services I came across an article about words and expressions that can’t be translated precisely into English. I’m always in the mood for a creative diversion and this one was rich.

The Spanish “duende”, for example, contains this complex idea: “the mysterious power that a work of art has to deeply move a person.” Or “l’appel du vide”. Leave it to the French to have such a precise expression for the instinctive urge to jump from high places. Or the Portugeses, “saudade”, the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost.”

And that brought me around an old corner of the mental neighborhood. Recently, for the first time in many years, I heard the classic bossa nova tune, Desafinado, and suddenly I was seeing the scratchy fabric covering of the HiFi speakers in the house I grew up in, and hearing the equally scratchy 33 1/3 LP recording, probably Stan Getz. Release date would put this around 1962. I was 12 years old. I just had to look up the full lyrics, but most of them had stayed with me pretty well across fifty years, along with the catchy, syncopated beat.

“Love is like a never-ending melody/Always have compared it to a symphony/A symphony conducted by the lighting of the moon/But our song of love is slightly out of tune….

My dad was a saxophonist, playing in the 50’s equivalent of garage bands, getting together in trios with friends to play in livingsaxo rooms and small local clubs and bars. He loved the jazz classics and kept up with its evolution from the forties into the 50’s and 60’s; including Dave Brubeck, and the Bossa Nova blend of jazz and Samba coming out of Brazil. And the Columbia Record Club brought us a steady mailing of albums, some costing only pennies.

So I went looking for the definition in the song’s title, and it turns out that Desafinado, from the Portuguese, is another of those untranslatable word — its approximate English meaning is “Out of Tune”, or “Off Key”.

“Once your kisses raised me to a fever pitch/Now the orchestration doesn’t seem so rich/Seems to me you’ve changed the tune we used to sing/Like the bossa nova, love should swing..”

Yikes. How does a 12 year old think about romance or marriage? I think it’s safe to say that although the most basic of influences has to be what is observed, and absorbed in family life, taken in like air, stored away to unfold later – 12 year olds do not like to think of their parents as exemplars of romance, And that is certainly not what the nuns of St. Michael’s recommended. I do recall being told, in a gender segregated Catholic school sermon on sexuality from a nun with a grudge against boys, that sex should never be discussed except in the presence of a responsible adult. This pretty much paints a picture of the word “awkward”. Awkward and strange. The body is already most of the way into adulthood but the mind and emotions have yet to stretch that far.

So I was hearing this musical portrait of romance as harmony and perfection; achieving a fever pitch; but I had no idea about fever pitch. No context at all, unless what the nuns were referring to was that sexual desire was akin to an illness

Were these songs written about marriages in which six children had been born within the first 12 years? About teenagers in love, about aspiring musicians earning a living in the real, mechanical world, about a girl postponing the dream of college? About marriages mixed of equal parts Baptist and Catholic?

I learned later, from my mother, that the marriage had eroded significantly by this time, beginning in the utter exhaustion of four children younger than five and my dad working night shifts; though it would not formally end until its 20th year.

I don’t recall seeing any overt disagreement; never overheard arguments; they were reasonably cooperative as parents — though it frayed in the months leading up to their separation.

They were quietly unhappy, in a marriage that broke under the weight of ordinary things. There’s a concept in search of an untranslatable word.


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