The Untranslatable

The Untranslatable

By Vince Granata

How often do we sprinkle untranslated words and phrases into English sentences? While there is no shortage of Latin phrases lingering in the lexicon—mea culpa, quid pro quo, a priori­—we’ve lifted a number of active languages into our speech as well. When we blunder in conversation, we commit a faux pas.  When we encounter an uncanny double, we see a doppelganger. A musical group without accompaniment performs a cappella. Instead of shoehorning English vocabulary to fill these spaces we superimpose foreign language when our own lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.

But why stop with these common thefts? Truly untranslatable vocabulary abounds, words that express feelings we don’t easily convey in English, concepts even more amorphous to us than schadenfreude. Take for example some of my favorite Italian expressions—abbioco, the unique drowsiness felt after a massive meal, or cavoli riscaldati, literally the result of reheating cabbage, a phrase used to express the futility of reviving a failed relationship. In Yiddish a luftmensch—literally, “air person”—describes a sort of misfit trapped in an impossible dreamland. The Arabic word ya’aburnee translates directly to “you bury me,” but conveys the almost ineffable desire that a loved one outlive you—literally, buries you—because the pain of living without them would be too much to bear.

Recently, I felt the need to employ a similar untranslatable feeling when a student, entirely reasonably, asked me when I’d be finished grading his essay. I thought of a Spanish word, ahorita, a strange permutation of ahora, a common word meaning “now.”

I first heard this word, ahorita, three years ago, living in Batey Libertad—a small Dominican village ninety miles from the Haitian border. A friend from childhood runs an education non-profit based in this village, one that offers a slew of services from early literacy programs to college scholarships. I spent a portion of my summer in 2014 working in Spanish with children ages 6-10. Spanish came more freely then than it does now, but even then I was not a fluent speaker. This, my fledgling Spanish proficiency, was not as crippling in the village because most of the residents —“migrants” from across the arbitrary and in many ways tragic line splitting the island of Hispanola—also approached Spanish as a second language. Most grew up speaking Haitian Creole. When we spoke to each other in Spanish, we met on foreign ground.

I heard ahorita frequently from the kids. For some time, I misinterpreted the full meaning of the word. I assumed, building from the common word ahora, “now,” that ahorita was a softer version of “now,” the ita/ito tacked on as a diminutive to denote small size or affection. I took ahorita to be sort of kid speak for “now.” I would ask a student, cuando terminaras tus tarjetas de vocabulario—when will you finish your vocabulary flashcards—and he might respond, ahorita, BinceBince because the ‘V’ sound was difficult for the kids to pronounce. When hearing ahorita, I assumed that the student had finished, or that the end of the task was in sight. I was confused when, five minutes later, the same boy still wrote his vocabulary words onto index cards.

I started noticing ahorita elsewhere. I heard it when the family I lived with asked their mother when dinner was—ahorita—when a woman asked her son to hang laundry—ahorita—when pestering a friend who loitered over his hand during a card game—ahorita. The response seemed automatic even when the cuando—when?—was implied.

The English “now” is urgent, punctuated with an exclamation mark, like someone crying STAT in an emergency room. But with ahorita, the speaker expresses a sort of temporal ennui, nodding at the need for prompt action, but brushing aside any immediate response, promising instead something closer to “soon” or “momentarily.” But even these words don’t capture ahorita, a word that does not fit easily in the context of the American English “Now!”

Ahorita is not a lazy “now,” not a groan over leaving one’s bed, but an acknowledgment of the absurdity of instant satisfaction, of delivery on demand. It’s a way of saying, “at my pace,” “at my speed,” while implying “you and I might have different concepts of now, of need, of urgency.”

But all this effort belies my premise, the untranslatable, what we cannot express in American English. But I want to use this word, I want to say ahorita when telling a friend, colleague, or stranger, “Take a breath. Now will come soon enough.”


Vince Granata is a staff editor at Café Américain and a third-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.

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