Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Book Review: Lost in Translation

Title: Lost in Translation
Author: Ella Frances Sanders
Publisher: Ten Speed Press
Publication Date: September 2014
Read: March 2015
Where It Came From: eARC via NetGalley* + purchased copy
Genre: Non-fiction-language-culture-coffee-table
Rating: 4 Tsundoku Book Piles

What a fun little book! This “illustrated compendium of untranslatable words from around the world” (as it calls itself) is a delight, gathering up words from languages the world over that have no equivalent in English, but that put a name to feelings and ideas we know and understand, but perhaps had difficulty describing before (like jayus, from Indonesian—a joke so bad you can’t help laughing at it), or ones that give insight to aspects of other cultures and places (like fika, from Swedish—getting together to sip coffee, eat snacks, and relax together).

Each word gets a two-page spread, with the name of the language it’s from and some additional explanation on the left side, and the word, definition, and a watercolor illustration on the right. The art is lovely, but then again, I am a sucker for watercolors! I will note that in my digital ARC, I thought the watercolor looked a little better than it does in the finished book—I don’t know if it’s the way it was printed or what, but it’s especially noticeable in the cursive handwritten definition for each word, which looks a little fuzzy.

I am a huge language nerd, and I love that this book celebrates how culture and language are inextricably intertwined, and how language shapes the way we think. Even if you wouldn’t consider yourself particularly language-nerdy, there’s still a lot of fun to be had with this book, like with pisan zapra (from Malay—the time it takes to eat a banana) or kummerspeck (from German—literally “grief-bacon,” or weight gain from eating one’s feelings). I was a little unsatisfied by their definition of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, but I learned a new Japanese word, too! Komorebi--sunlight filtering through tree leaves above you. This is something I photographed often when I was in Japan, and always noticed and enjoyed during my many walks through city, countryside, temple, and shrine. How lovely to learn that there is a word I could have used to talk about it!

A couple other favorites: Trepverter, from Yiddish, meaning that witty comeback that you think of only after the time to use it has passed. (I seem to remember that this one exists in French, too--l’esprit d’escalier, or the spirit of the stairs. Coming up with that zinger right when you’re leaving!) And this one, particularly apt for this blog: Tsundoku, from Japanese, referring to the act of buying a book and then not reading it, usually piling it up with other books bought and as yet unread.

Fun book. It would make a great gift or be a nice addition to your coffee table, providing fodder for conversation, some laughs, and thinking.

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

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