I have a friend who uses the word schadenfreude fairly regularly in ordinary conversation. He is something of a word-smith, likely to pitch a new metaphor my way at the least provocation, but I find myself surprised each time he so evocatively describes the pleasure that people take in the misfortune of others. It got me thinking about other words that communicate states of being that English cannot so effectively describe.
I started with sangfroid, primarily because it is so egregiously mispronounced by folks who think the word is sounded as if Freud sang. OK, we have phrases such as “cool as a cucumber” (?!?) and “cool, calm, and collected”, but the closest analog in terms of translation might be “cold blooded”. Sangfroid, however, carries a sense of self-possessed calm surprising in the moment described, not so much heartless, or even cool, but unflapped and competent.
Sticking with phrases taken from the French, double entendre has no real competition among lame English substitutes. “Double meaning”? Hah! “Suggestive”? Nah.
De rigueur for example. Necessary obligation? Set of expectations? Uncompromising etiquette?
But consider this contemporary critical piece. I cannot acknowledge the author of this quotation found on Quotes Codex, but it does pull our attention away from affairs of state and dinner at the embassy
“I don’t watch reality TV much, but sometimes I’ll be on the E! channel and see that show “Total Divas” about female wrestlers. It’s like fake t___s are de rigueur. Nose jobs are de rigueur. Exaggerated a___s are de rigueur. Twerking is de rigueur.”
Point taken. And, in an unexpected insight, “twerking” may well be a word that communicates much more than any translated single word might attempt.
The list of French phrases that animate our conversations is rich with equally powerful locutions, but the remaining untranslatable, I think, is roman-a-clef, literally, “novel with a key”. Exactly.
So, here’s a purposefully clumsy description of the genre:
Say everyone knows that the novel, The Election of Ronald Frump is fictitious, but also knows that the fiction overlays accounts of real people and real settings.
The novel is a novel, but the people and events are real … but not.
Doesn’t help, does it?
In any case, try getting through any serious discussion without making use of:
Tete-a-tete, au courant, raison d’être, nouveau riche, laissez-faire, joie de vivre, femme fatale.
As a reader of mannered British mysteries, many of which involve bright young men just down from Oxford, most of whom could not dress themselves without the assistant of a valet, I encountered a phrase that seemed to indicate an unwillingness to engage, or an inability to enter into a fray, or something. Inexplicable but happily, the phrase turned up in a novel by Lawrence Block, The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling.
“With the alarm hors de combat, I turned my attention to the thick oak door, an hors of a different color.”
So, terrible pun aside, hors de combat is not simply broken or unavailable, but “out of the fight” with a suggestion that there is no question of cowardice or unwillingness on the part of the non-combatant. Unfortunately it also brings to mind – “Do you like Kipling?” “I don’t know. I’ve never Kippled.”
My schadenfreude pal presses me to find phrases in German with equal impact. Quite a challenge for a number of reasons. WWI and WWII spring to mind, but the greater impediment, Ich denke, is that many of us have difficulty with uvulars and pharyngeals, sounds made by jamming the tongue against the back of the throat. Schadenfreude isn’t bad, but take a shot at schilttsschuhlaufen, ice skating or streichholzschachtelchen, small match box.
I lived near Zürich for three years, attempting to learn both hochdeutche (high German as spoken in universities in Germany) and Schweizerdeutsch (Swiss German, which, by the way, varies from canton to canton).
In hochdeutsche, a cheesecake (simple enough) is kasekuchen (I have no umlauts available, so take a guess). Again, simple enough,really. Kase – cheese / kuchen – cake.
In Schweizerdeutsch, the same object is eins chas-chuechli, and every single syllable is way back there by the uvula, I promise.
Ja, naturlich/ Yo natuurlich. Time to trot out at least a few standby words or phrases in German.
Let’s take food off the table; no surprise to Wiener Schnitzel, obviously schnitzel (cutlet) as it is prepared in Vienna (Wien). The one curious mix-up for travelers, however, is that a doughnut (without a hole) is a Berliner, as is a person who lives in Berlin. Kennedy’s speech in 1963, “Ich bin ein Berliner” was directed toward the city, not the pastry.
Schmaltz, a word used in English to convey sentimentality, is the German word for lard. So, there’s that.
Doppelganger works beautifully to express not simply a double, but the presence of one life form precisely identical to another.
Gesundheit (a state of healthiness) speaks for itself.
Dollar, from the German thaler, silver coin mined in Bohemia.
Hinterland, blitz, wunderkind, kaffeklatch, Gestalt, dachshund, Volkswagon, kindergarten, kaput, nix – all obvious.
But there are at least four words that are irreplaceable in any language.
When affected by ennui or a malaise (SO FRENCH), we may be subject to weltschmertz, literally, “world pain”, occasionally described as the painful state of knowing that much that exists in the mind cannot exist in the real world.
Or, being bummed.
As a teacher, I often brought books to the classroom that described the coming-of-age of an adolescent on the brink of adulthood. In German, elegantly, that is a bildungsroman, a novel of formation. Really no substitute.
I first met the phrase, realpolitik, when studying the machinations of Otto von Bismarck, a cunning and dangerously pragmatic manipulator of contending forces. The word came up again, surprisingly, during Richard Nixon’s presidency, when the United States established a détente (SO FRENCH) with China. Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, was eminently pragmatic and determined to grab advantage in the great game of diplomacy. Again, the terms pragmatically political or realistically political don’t come close.
Caught in a perplexing maelstrom (a famous whirlpool off Norway), you may feel the effect of sturm und drang, which is used to mean, “storm and stress”, but more evocatively translates as “storm and urge”. It’s hard to think of a more devastating state of being than being simultaneously tossed by storms of emotion and urges that cannot be satisfied. Ach du lieber! (Oh! My dear!)
Enough. Genug. Assez.