The "Untranslatable Word" Trope

First of all, the Korean's thoughts and prayers for everyone in Japan today. Please be safe.

In reaction to Japan's earthquake, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote a blog post about Japan's national character that will assist the recovery from this disaster. The Korean generally agreed with the overall point made by Kristof, but he found this passage a bit annoying:
But the Japanese people themselves were truly noble in their perseverance and stoicism and orderliness. There’s a common Japanese word, “gaman,” that doesn’t really have an English equivalent, but is something like “toughing it out.” And that’s what the people of Kobe did, with a courage, unity and common purpose that left me awed.
Sympathy for Japan, and Admiration [New York Times]

What annoyed the Korean was the "untranslatable word" trope -- about how "gaman" doesn't really have an English equivalent.  Um, actually there is an English equivalent of "gaman" -- any Japanese-English dictionary can tell you the equivalent. "Gaman" means "patience" or "perseverance." And hey, "perseverance" sounds awfully like "toughing it out."

Of course, there are cases in which word-to-word translation is not possible. For example, a word like 온돌 -- Korea's floor heating system -- does not have a single equivalent word in English. Also, there are cases in which the word itself could be translated, the precise emotion evoked by a word is difficult to translate. (See this post for example -- the word "white" loses all poetic meaning when translated from Korean to English.)

But in general, there is no word that is truly untranslatable. Instead, the "there is no equivalent word in English" is a crutch, overused whenever writers need a cheap and facile way of describing another culture. Through this trope, the writer tries to give off this impression: "Oh, those mysterious Japanese people! (In Kristof's case.) They have this concept that we cannot truly understand. All we could do is to guess at it, as if trying to divine if there will be rain by looking at the clouds."

The Korean likes Kristof's reporting a lot, but this is just lazy writing. What is wrong with simply saying that the Japanese people have perseverance? By setting up the story with the "untranslatable word" crutch, Kristof put Japanese people beyond the understanding of ordinary American people, only reachable through Kristof's own description of the Japanese people. This is not a good way of trying to bridge the gap between cultures.

Kristof's point is that there is much to admire about Japanese people's persevering spirit. The Korean agrees. But by setting up the Japanese perseverance as something alien to us, Kristof abdicates his stated goal. When the Japanese are portrayed as these inscrutable beings whose mindset we cannot completely understand, there is no point in admiring the mindset because we can never have that mindset anyway.

And it is not as if Americans have not had disasters which they overcame by way of their perseverance. Kristof could have chosen any number of challenges that faced America -- the Great Depression, Civil Rights Movement, World War II, September 11 -- and reminded Americans of their own strength and at the same time identify themselves with the Japanese also. But instead of fostering connection, the "untranslatable word" trope fosters separation.

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