Illustration by Patrícia Mafra.
At some point into learning a new language you’re likely to discover a word which describes a certain aspect of life better than your native language can. It could even be untranslatable in the sense that it has no single-word equivalent in other languages.
Language learning is cultural learning too. People in one part of the world can have different needs from those in another, and aspects of their languages usually reflect this. Even when it comes to the more universal things we all share — such as emotions, thoughts and feelings — they can take on both a wider array and more precise level of meaning, depending on what language you’re speaking.
Here, by looking at how different languages perceive the familiar concepts of calm and relaxation, you can quickly grow your vocabulary to better describe your emotions, expand your experience of well-being and gain new insights into other cultures. You may notice that the words listed below are tied to certain cultural traditions, but that you’ve also probably experienced them to some degree already — just without a concise word to describe them.
Staying calm under pressure is a useful trait for anyone to have. Fewer cultures seem to stereotypically exude calmness more than the Buddhist monks. Sanskrit is a prominent language within Buddhist hymns and chants of worship, and Upekṣā defines a deeper state of balance and calmness of the mind by those who practice the religion. The closest English translation is “equanimity” and represents one of Buddhism’s “Four Immeasurables” on the path to liberation. Unlike what we might consider staying calm under pressure to be: holding our nerve while speaking publicly, or executing the winning penalty in the final minutes of a soccer game, Upekṣā stands for an indifferent calmness which takes a lifetime to master — a mastery where the mind cannot be unbalanced by the highs, lows, fortunes and misfortunes that life brings.
There is also a less disciplined, sometimes unintentional indifference of the mind that we can turn on and off. To be absent in mind for even a few short moments, blankly gazing in some kind of befuddlement is what it means to be in a dwaal. In more informal usage, it can be used to describe the blank brain that follows a night of sleep deprivation or heavy drinking. The word is even used by English speakers in South Africa, who might describe someone as “being in a dwaal” when they are unfocused and spaced out.
Those who are lucky enough to live in Norway are never too far away from a stunning view that entices them to sit back and admire with nothing but their own thoughts for company. Somewhere in between daydreaming and procrastinating, the Norwegians have kukelure which takes the thoughtful elements of a daydreamer and the idleness of a procrastinator to mean a state of thinking deeply while doing absolutely nothing else.
Over the centuries, wabi-sabi has formed an integral element of traditional Japanese lifestyle — to be more mindful of everyday life by recognizing the beauty in its transience and imperfections. For many of us life rarely slows down, and within the ideals of wabi-sabi comes the word seijaku which involves briefly pausing our day to relax. The specificity of the word means it is not achieved through a lifetime of strict Buddhist training, nor by escaping the daily grind for a two week beach-side vacation. Instead it involves taking just a few short moments each day to regain a tranquil state of mind before continuing about our business.
The satisfaction of switching off your alarm after remembering you have no reason to get out of bed, before blissfully lying back for an indefinite amount of time goes some way to describing this Greek term. Simply calling it a lie-in also comes pretty close, but chouzourév̱o describes both the action of lolling around in bed and the coziness achieved from it.
Not every culture affords afternoon naps. For the ones that do enjoy such a luxury, it seems only right that they are able to dedicate a word to it. Aside from being a wonderful idea, it is also a great example of an “untranslatable” term that has found its way into the English language for its usefulness. Power naps have their time and place, with a greater sense of urgency either side of falling asleep, but the siesta comes more specifically from warmer climates: a post-lunch rest, comfortably shaded from the sun’s rays at the hottest time of day.
“That’s life” can be a reconciling thought that follows a misfortune, with no guarantee of faring better in the future. “What’s done is done” works well in signifying the end of a trivial event. Similar in philosophy, yet more positive in outlook, ayurnamat takes a pragmatic approach to unchangeable events with a little bit of hope mixed in too. It evokes a small sense of comfort by telling someone there is no point in worrying about the things in life beyond our control. Considering the unforgiving environments and temperamental climates that the Inuit call home, it is not hard to imagine this word being frequently used when their lifestyles are so entwined with the untameable weather.