I am sitting with two Italian friends, attempting to explain the definition of "awkward." Translation provided for your convenience.
Io: Forse è qualcosa tipo scomodo o magari strano? Non so come spiegare. È una cosa che si deve sentire per capire.
Me: Maybe it's something like uncomfortable or strange? I'm not sure how to explain. You have to experience it.
As I struggle to come up with an example, a friend walks by.
Io: Eh ciao Dario! Come stai? Non ti ho visto da molto tempo! Sei venuto dalla tua ragazza? Come sta lei?
Me: Hey Dario! How are you? I haven't seen you in a while! Were you visiting your girlfriend? How is she?
Dario: Infatti. Ci siamo lasciati un'ora fa.
Dario: Yeah, we actually broke up like an hour ago.
Io, agli amici: Vedete? È questo cosa significa awkward!
Me, to friends: See! That's what awkward is!
* * *
I use this humorous moment from my time living in Milan to illustrate the perplexing circumstances resulting from untranslatable words. Such moments make me wonder, if human emotions are universal, why do some languages have words for some emotions and others do not?
For example, João, my husband, wrote me a postcard from Portugal years ago before we started dating. It read: estou com saudades tuas. It sounded lovely, but what exactly were saudades? The word evokes images of fado and displaced Portuguese sailors, and when I think of that I believe I get close to the meaning of saudade. Yet, after years learning Portuguese, I am still not sure I know what it means. I have used the word many times, heard it in many songs, but I am not sure that I have really understood everything the word entails. How deep do saudades go? Longing. Melancholy. Nostalgia. These words all approximate saudades. But they miss the target. I'm not sure I'll ever actually know what this word means. Will I know it when I feel it? If so, how will I know?
On the other hand, there are those words that are not really mysteries because they just make so much sense you wonder why they don't exist in all languages. I really like the French word, dépaysement (noun: the feeling that comes from not being in one's own country). I guess homesickness is a close approximation but it's most often used to refer to a specific city (home!) not the whole country. You could say "I miss such and such" but it doesn't have the same completeness as dépaysement and it does not conjure up the image of a person that has been pulled up from one country by a Divine Hand and then dropped into another, which is exactly what I think of when I read dépaysement. Other great words include: duende (Spanish for the mysterious power that a work of art has to deeply move a person), Kummerspeck (German for "grief bacon" or weight put on while overeating for emotional reasons) or culaccino (Italian for the ring of condensation left on a table by a perspiring glass) just to name a few.
Some words are just so good that it's a shame to have to settle for a lesser word in another language. But until we develop some type of universal language or we all become polyglots, awkward will have to mean uncomfortable to my Italian friends, and saudades will have to mean longing for me. For now.
P.S. For more fun words, see here.