“Ew, this kopi is terrible!”
My friend scrunched up her nose and put down her coffee distastefully. We were sitting at our university canteen, drinking our cups of coffee and tea before heading to class.
“Why? What’s wrong with it?” I asked, “It looks okay.”
“It’s just so… siap!” she replied, shaking her head in disapproval.
I gave her a puzzled expression. I had no idea what she was talking about—the fact that I was drinking tea didn’t help the situation much either. Even after living in Singapore for over 6 years, I was far from a Singlish expert (or was that unrecognizable word… Malay? Or maybe Hokkien?).
“Siap is like… err…” she began to explain, having noticed my raised eyebrow. “Actually I’m not so sure. I think it means ‘unripe’ in English…”
“So, umm… your coffee tastes unripe?” I asked. That didn’t seem right.
However, when I googled it a few minutes later, it turns out she was right (well, kind of). According to the Michelin Guide Singapore, the word “siap” is described as follows:
“Siap was originally a Hokkien word, corresponding to the Mandarin se (涩), which means astringent. Siap is commonly noticed in unripe fruits like persimmons and strawberries, or the skins of fruits such as grapes, blueberries. It also occurs in tea, coffee, red wine and chilli, where it’s generally regarded as an unpleasant characteristic. In foods, siap often combines with bitterness and/or sourness, rendering them doubly unpalatable.”
This incident got me thinking. How many times have I struggled to translate a Hindi word into English? Several times actually. Especially when it comes to Indian food – the complexity of spices, the aroma, the fusion of ingredients and the vocabulary that we use to describe it in Indian languages, often can’t be perfectly translated into English. But, why?
Untranslatable words exist because of cultural differences and contexts. The cultures of two different language speakers cannot be mapped one-to-one onto each other, and hence neither can their languages. On one hand, this could create confusion when trying to explain certain words to a foreign-language learner. Yet, on the other hand—it’s pretty cool!
It’s almost as if an untranslatable word is a “culturema”: a little piece of culture that reveals something unique about the customs of the language speakers. Originally mapped from Spanish, and now being increasingly used in translation studies, the concept of “culturema” suggests that if we think of words as carriers of cultural behaviors it is likely that unique cultures produce unique words.
Let’s take a closer look at some words that can’t be translated into English and see if cultural differences can explain these lacunae, or gaps, in English.
Here are five food related words that can’t be perfectly translated to English (followed by an attempt to use them in an English sentence, nonetheless):
Example: “We should pack some biscuits and other padkos for the journey.”
This literally means “road food” or food for a journey. Meals are often cooked at home in South Africa, and eating out of the house is an occasional affair. Usually when people take a road trip, they go prepared with snacks for the road – easily consumable food items, often dry and solid, that can be eaten quickly without further preparation. Carrying snacks for the journey is definitely not common practice in most English-speaking countries such as the UK or the USA, where travelers often depend on purchases along the way rather than carrying their snacks from home.
Example: The cake was topped with hand-picked berries with a rural terroir.
This word literally translates to “soil”, but the word is used to describe the specific environment or circumstance in which a food is grown. For instance, a “rural terroir” comprises a flavor of the countryside. It is a complex context that is typically used in the context of wine and cheese – a key part of French cuisine. It is often believed that the vines, soil and climate of a particular patch of land create a unique taste for the grapes grown there. Terroir seems to be suited to descriptions of food whose taste differs due to the environment it is from – like wine or cheese.
Example: Don’t drink that tea, I just took a sip and it’s jhoota!
Literally meaning “false” or “contaminated”, this is a word used to describe food that has been touched by the lips of another. As a native Hindi speaker, I must confess that I have tried and yet never found a perfect English equivalent. The origins of the word relates to Hinduism wherein food that is ‘impure’ (or tasted by someone) is never offered to the Gods during a ritual. However, the idea of contaminating’ food by either biting it directly or even handling it with used cutlery is generally considered improper at the dining table. For instance, Indians often refrain from eating food that has been tasted by another person during meals – unless they are close family. Even in some Bollywood films, you can find romantic scenes in which a woman takes a bite from her betrothed’s piece of barfi to signal how ‘close’ they are! The strong cultural reference carried by this word perhaps explains why it can often be easily translated into other Indian languages—but not English.
Sobremesa (Spanish) and Abbiocco (Italian)
Examples: I need a cup of coffee to tackle my post-lunch abbiocco!
Lunch went on to teatime as everyone had the time for a leisurely sobremesa.
The last two words on this list are reflective of dining norms in the Mediterranean. In Italy and Spain, lunch is the most important meal of the day, and often the heaviest and longest as well. Even today, a lunch break in either country is typically 2 hours long on average! Lunch is a social affair in both Italy and Spain, where meals are often the centre of family gatherings.
Sobremesa, which literally translates to “over the table”, refers to the meal-time conversations that often go on even after consumption of the food is over. Sobremesa.us, an organization that promotes Spanish cuisine through cooking classes, gives a lovely definition: “Time spent in conversation, digesting, relaxing, enjoying. Certainly not rushing.” Sobremesa is a word that conveys the hearty, social, and relaxed experience of a Mediterranean lunch.
Abbiocco, which translates to “the drowsiness that follows a big meal”, is the step after the sobremesa has ended. This word is undoubtedly linked to the sumptuous Mediterranean meal we were just talking about, but it is also linked to another Mediterranean cultural concept – the siesta. (In fact, the word “siesta” used to be an untranslatable word itself, until it was added to the English dictionary as it is. A siesta is a midday break, often after lunch, that is commonly taken by businessmen and shop-owners to avoid the hottest hours of the day and sometimes to take an afternoon nap.)
Although siestas are becoming increasingly uncommon in recent years in both Italy and Spain, abbiocco is still a very commonly used word as it is, not to mention a natural consequence of a wholesome Italian meal!
It is tempting to think of these untranslatable words as ‘missing words’ stemming from foreign cultures. But perhaps we shouldn’t. After all, a native English speaker can disapprove of bitten bread just because it’s jhoota just like an Indian, or feel drowsy after a big meal like an Italian. Let us focus, instead, on the fact that these words are unique – what makes these five words untranslatable is their reference to novel cultural experiences. Looking at untranslatable words as tickets to new cultural phenomena then allows us, as foreign-language speakers and learners, to be found, rather than lost, in translation.