March 23rd, 2020 | Between Words. On The Shortcomings of Human Language.
So Many Expressions Are Untranslatable! On The Shortcomings of Human Language.
I recently found a list of untranslatable words that appear in many languages around the world. Some of them are just funny expressions for the unlucky or annoying events that we all encounter – such as the German term “Fachidiot” to describe someone who knows a lot about a very narrow subject.
Other terms describe feelings and impressions that we often get in particular situations – such as the Japanese term “Aware” to describe the bitter-sweetness of an ephemeral moment of transcendent beauty.
It’s an interesting list to go through, just to realize that there are so many inconveniences or feelings that we all experience but we (almost) never talk about them—just because our local language does not contain any expressions that could describe them. I found many funny examples in the illustrated book entitled “Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World.”
And, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
My List of Untranslatable Words.
Today, I did a small exercise: I thought of unnamed feelings that I always have an issue explaining to other people, and in a few minutes I came up with 20 examples.
And I am sure that in fact, there are thousands of them; they just did not receive enough attention in the public space to receive any names. In this article, I would like to list them. Do you have your examples to append to this list? Please let me know in the comments below!
1. Fate Walks With You.
Or, in other words, a feeling of inevitability. You feel that low probability events happen way more often than they would come out from the probability calculus, and you are almost forced to take certain decisions—which you are eventually happy about but the satisfaction only comes a long time later.
I always struggle with this feeling because I am aware of the cognitive distortions that bias the human perception of probabilities (especially, Heaven’s Reward Fallacy) However, although I got rid of most of these distortions in my twenties, I cannot deal with this one.
This impression of inevitability happened to me on so many occasions! For instance, I experience it ever since I started a company. First, I wanted to become an academic for life, but no matter what efforts I was making to reach that goal, I was always feeling a strong resistance from the rest of the universe. I was constantly getting difficult and non-publishable projects, and difficult people to work with.
As a result, daily life was miserable, and the output was just poor compared to what I was capable of doing as a researcher. Then, I decided to find a job elsewhere. And, for a long time, I couldn’t find any job I might potentially enjoy, and hundreds of unlikely events blocking my employment were happening at that point.
I was that person who was hard to classify to recruiters (namely, to classify as a manager, or as a specialist) thus I used to be desk rejected every time—no questions asked. Or, I was that person who had too high qualifications for the job. Or, that person whose application magically got lost in the recruitment process. There was always a—more or less ridiculous—reason to reject me.
And then, I decided to start the company, and all of a sudden, stars started aligning in my favour. Some magic is happening because ever since I did so, most of the surprise events that happened to me are positive. The right people are popping like mushrooms after the rain, new ideas are coming to my head every day, the progress is almost effortless, and I do not see any possibility that this initiative will not work in the future.
This is just an example of how I often experience the feeling of inevitability; no matter how hard I try, some doors are just closed to me against all odds and all logic, while some other doors are wide open and I can walk through without any resistance.
2. Connection With the Hive Mind.
It is the feeling that you get after being connected to the global village for quite some time. And when after regularly visiting YouTube, Netflix, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and other online places that most people visit on the regular basis for years and years, you get the impression that you (more or less) understand the trends in society.
Single pieces of information, or single materials, might seem irrelevant, but after absorbing thousands of those unrelated pieces, you get a picture of what is important to people today, and how “the crowd” thinks. And you can even predict the future with a certain probability.
3. A Feeling of Being Watched.
(but in a good sense): you know that someone is tracking your progress. And, it is not a guardian angel but rather, another human or humans. I prefer to stay rational and concentrate on hard facts rather than on subjective feelings, but I usually feel under my skin if someone else is thinking about me.
4. Feeling Deeply Misunderstood.
This is a particular type of loneliness hard to describe. I always had this issue that I used to conclude like a researcher, but take decisions upon these conclusions like an entrepreneur—which causes that no one can predict what I will do with any information I get. Other researchers can predict what I will think but not what I will do with it, and all the rest of the people who know me, cannot even make this type of prediction.
For this reason, I used to suffer from misunderstanding, and an unfair label of “a loose cannon.” In my coordinates, all my decisions are perfectly logical but finding someone else who can understand them, is bloody hard—and I didn’t succeed yet.
5. A Feeling That In The Long Run, Nothing Matters—
or, the feeling of futility of all efforts. When I do projects that I proposed by myself, I am highly motivated and determined to complete them successfully. However, somewhere in the back of my head, there is still a shade of nihilism and the feeling that at the end of the day, nothing matters—and that I have my limits in terms of how much of myself I am willing to sacrifice for a project.
When I was 8 years old, I lost my best friend, who was brutally killed during the summer vacation. She used to be the most religious kid in the classroom, sing in the local choir on Sundays, and be kind to everyone.
Since then, I always had a feeling of abandonment, and futility of all efforts; at end of the day, we will all land in the dust, and some people even much sooner than they should. Plus, the world is a non-rewarding place where you cannot be sure that even your best efforts will result in anything positive.
Thus, I recognize the importance of being away from the world, not caring about anything, and staring at the sun in silence. Or being alone in the green, with the booze, and the music. And no matter how big the projects I currently do, I will never resign from these long hours spent not caring about anyone and anything.
6. A Feeling Of Realizing Something Deep About The World While You Are Drinking.
A feeling of realizing something deep about the world while you are drinking. Something that you know you won’t remember once you get sober again. It happened to me on countless occasions! But I don’t remember what it was all about, of course.
7. A Realization That Your Parents Will Die One Day.
An awful feeling, I must say.
8. A Feeling of Self-Love—
and a commitment to be your friend. This is a feeling you usually think you already have until you experience it, and then realize that in fact, you have never been your friend before.
This is a hard one because it is often hard to be your own best friend if, at the same time, you need to play the efficiency game. Namely, to be efficient at work, you need to treat yourself with less empathy than you treat everyone else—to push yourself to still work even if you are tired and don’t feel well anymore. And often in situations when you would tell your friends to go home and rest. But at the same time, even though you push yourself to the limits, only do things that bring you closer to what you want in the long run.
9. “I Got This!”
The feeling when you just cannot let go of something as you have a strong feeling that you are navigating in the right direction and that success is just behind the corner. This is a feeling of trusting yourself and trusting you are making the right decisions—although you have no proof for that just yet, and people around you might be doubtful if you are going in the right direction.
10. I’m Afloat!
A feeling that you throw yourself into deep water and surprisingly to yourself, you swim. Or otherwise, a feeling of constantly crossing your boundaries.
11. Connection To Nature.
A feeling of a deep connection to nature, and its natural cycles. It is a two-sided stick as you feel awake and energetic whenever spring/morning is in the air, but also dizzy and demotivated whenever the winter/night is coming.
12. Others Need Me.
A feeling that other people need you. People whom you might not even know now. A weird feeling, and has a similar flavour as the connection to the hive mind.
13. Keep Standards High.
A feeling that you will never let go of your standards no matter what. Very satisfying feeling—although there is a long list of people who have pretensions to me for crossing them out of my list of contacts, or don’t pick up their calls anymore. Well, I don’t care.
14. Looking At The Ashes.
A feeling that you buried your previous life, and you are starting all anew. It is a mixture of bereavement, fear, hope, excitement, and a few other ingredients that I cannot exactly capture.
15. The Joy of Simple Life.
A feeling that you are a smallfolk, and that you are fine with it. I just enjoy my smallfolk-ness and the fact that I live in a village, that I have a garden, plus a supermarket, park, and spa behind a corner. And, that life is so slow and simple out here. I never envied people who are household names or lead big projects. It is just great to be a smallfolk!
A feeling of doing something epic. I don’t know what will happen ten or twenty years from now, but I feel that I will have a lot to say about this to my grandchildren. This feeling under their skin that what you are doing now, will have very long-term consequences, although you have no idea how these consequences will manifest.
17. Being In (Mental) Travel.
A feeling that you are on a big journey—even though you mostly sit at home. Every day is just another adventure, and another chance to make a few steps forward. It is a paradox to me, because sitting at home and working hard—especially now, in times of the coronavirus, when all the meetings are called off so that you can fully focus on the actual work—I have this feeling of being on a journey that is more pronounced than the feeling I had in my twenties while I was travelling to some exotic places on a few continents.
18. A Feeling of Having a Weird Taste.
For some reason, my favourite songs at Eurovision almost always come out as last in the grand finale, I rarely share the taste for guys with my friends, and I particularly enjoy watching movies considered extremely cheesy (in particular, horror movies of class Z) and I often end up with weird combinations of food on my plate (like a classic herring/chocolate combo). Some people are born with bad taste, what can you do?
19. A Feeling Of Being Immune To Problems.
When you feel that all the problems only itch you on the surface but cannot get under your skin. This might be something that naturally comes with age. Anyways, ever since I set up a company, I realized that you have to take failures and rejections in daily life as given, so it is better to just laugh about them or do something useful about them other than worry.
At some point, I decided to do 100 crunches every time I don’t succeed at something. After three months I had such abs that people in the spa started asking me whether I am a fitness instructor or so.
20. A Feeling That Good News Is On The Way.
This feeling is when you wake up in the morning, and you know this is just going to be a good day. Now it seems obvious to me that every day even one should start like this but ten or fifteen years ago I never had that vibe.
Conclusion: On The Shortcomings of Human Language.
And, no wonder that people have so many communication problems these days—there are separate names for every item in the world, like every single type of chip or pasta, but there are no names for most of the non-material qualities that are important. I am now working on a recruitment solution based on non-material values, and the fact that the language is so crippled is an issue!
Do you have examples of the blindspots of human language? Please post them below and let’s discuss them!
Please cite as:
Bielczyk, N. (2020, March 23rd). Between Words. On The Shortcomings of Human Language. Retrieved from https://nataliabielczyk.com/between-words-on-the-shortcomings-of-human-language/
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If you would like to read more about careers (for PhDs and other white-collar professionals) and effective strategies to self-navigate in the job market, please also take a look at the blog of my company, Ontology of Value where I write posts dedicated to these topics.