Sappho in Paris: The Poetic Value of Lexical Cosmopolitanism

Despite the occasional vague pronoun reference or f-bomb, I’ve always fancied myself a relatively articulate and polite English speaker (growing up so close to Canada has its consequences). En français, however, I undergo a Jekyll-like transformation from Midwestern Judith Martin to angry truck driver doing stand up for the French navy. A typical conversation is sprinkled with generous helpings of putain and merde and Sartre help the enculé that cuts me off in traffic (pardon my French). To most Americans, French is the language spoken by svelte supermodels ragdolling in minimalist Parisian condominiums or the angst-ridden artist languidly ashing Gauloises into a buttered croissant after a night of adulterous antics with the neighborhood mime. For me, however, French is a language in possession of words so precisely fit for playful arguments, venting anger, and making dirty puns. There are some situations and feelings that English simply cannot describe in a way that satisfies me, and vice versa. Anybody fluent in more than one language is intimately familiar with the je ne sais quoi of speaking one language versus another. For any situation or feeling in life, there is a language out there in possession of a word or phrase able to apprehend the experience in a way that no other language can match. It was only recently that I began to connect this little phenomenon I had always understood intuitively with my interest in poetry. What, if any, poetic potential can we gain from an understanding of foreign words or phrases that cannot neatly translate into our own language?

Goethe’s poem “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt” has usually been translated as “Only those who know yearning”. But yearning or even longing cannot adequately capture Sehnsucht. Sehnsucht is a profound emotional experience characterized by a painful and often melancholic desire for something, especially if that particular thing is distant or completely unattainable. The word is a combination of das Sehnen (yearning) and das Siechtum (lingering illness). In a similar vein, the Japanese mono no aware (literally “the pathos of things”) is a gentle yet permeating sadness over the transience of all phenomena in our experience. The medieval Japanese author Yoshida Kenko so skillfully encapsulates the feeling of mono no aware:

When I recall the months and years spent as the intimate of someone whose affections have now faded like cherry blossoms scattering even before a wind blew, I still remember every word of hers that once so moved me; and when I realize that she, as happens in such cases, is steadily slipping away from my world, I feel a sadness greater even than that of separation from the dead.”

To weave words so precisely that we ensnare something previously inexpressible is, I feel, the essential impulse of poetry. With words the poet spawns layers of meaning and, in the process, may so succinctly express whole patches of our experience that previously remained incoherent or unnoticed by us. With such an immense project before us, there is limitless value in pouring the vocabulary of other languages into the cracks that our native tongue leaves us. Mamihlapinatapeie is the Yagan word to describe a silent look between two people, both desiring to initiate something but both reluctant to do so. Mangata is the Swedish word for the reflection of the moon on water. Ever just spend the day basking in the sun and drinking beer? The Norwegians call that utepils. Walking on one’s toes across warm sand is hanyauku in Rukwangali. Culaccio is Italian for the stain on a table from a glass of cold water. The Greek word for the sound of leaves rustling in the wind? Psithurism.

It’s not that we must suddenly flood our poems with a cacophony of stolen vocabulary (then again, that’s often the way new languages form). The inspiration gleaned from expanding our knowledge of untranslatable words and phrases is both descriptive as well as aesthetic. How would a poem look that takes as its aesthetic influence the mood of mono no aware. What imagery in a poem could evoke a feeling of Sehnsucht? We can even use the gaps of our native language to our creative advantage as prompts. Show me l’appel du vide, the call of the void, without ever mentioning the phrase. Do the same with mamihlapinatapeie.

The value of poetry is located in its ability to exorcise the type of isolation and confusion that arises when we are unable to articulate our experience of reality. The knowledge that someone, potentially hundreds of years and miles removed from me today, has felt the same hardships, lusts, joys, and sorrows that I have and has expressed them in ways I never could brings a deep sense of gratitude. In these untranslatable words, we find a similar recognition of a shared human experience. Thanks to the Norwegians, I now have a word to describe my beer-drenched sunbathing days. To equip ourselves with these untranslatables, then, is to equip ourselves with new tools to expand our poetic abilities.

Gabe Toupin– Gabriel Toupin

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