Prepare to be amazed, for there's a collection here of ‘‘foreign words so rich and layered in meaning that the English language, despite its own unusual vocabulary [whatever that means] renders them practically untranslatable.’’ Except that the compiler, one Ella Frances Sanders, despite over-egging each lexical pudding, manages to make the meanings clear enough. Sanders makes Susan Polis Schultz sound hard-boiled:
The words in this book may be answers to questions you didn’t know to ask, and perhaps some you did. They might pinpoint emotions and experiences that seemed elusive or indescribable, or they may cause you to remember a person you’d forgotten. If you take something away from this book … let it be the realization or affirmation that you are human, [it's easily forgotten, after all] that you are fundamentally, intrinsically bound to every single person on the planet with language and feelings.Writing her review, Maria Popova is as rapt as Sanders. She wants to know '...what happens when words are kept apart by too much unbridgeable otherness?' Anybody want to take that one? I haven't a clue what she means, so let's move on. On the Japanese word komorebi meaning ‘sunlight filtered through the trees’ Popova goes all precious on us:
These words invariably prompt you to wonder… whether a culture lacking a word for the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees is also one lacking the ennobling capacity for such quality of presence, for the attentive and appreciative stillness this very act requires.
So the irritating thing about all these 'untranslatable' words is that they are in quite a few instances nothing so remarkable as Sanders would paint them, and the above is but a skimming of the words that are oversold in her book. Then there's the new-agey, feel-good sentimentality about the whole project that a more rigorous approach would have dispelled - and might admittedly have harmed sales as well, if not made the entire thing pointless.
Sanders, E.F. (2014) Lost in Translation: an illustrated compendium of untranslatable words from around the world Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.