What’s that word?

We often struggle to find words for our thoughts, and more specifically, to recall a known word. And as we grow older, maybe even more frequently. Searching for appropriate words in another (known) language can also be a challenge for multilinguals, not only because the word may be temporarily inaccessible (which also happens), but also because equivalent meanings in the ‘other language’ can be evasive. As students of the social sciences have learnt, the linguistic determinism, or its diluted version, the linguistic relativism hypothesis, states that languages determine (or guide) the ways in which we perceive our worlds. As an example, the detail with which kin terminology details labels for the other person in Indian languages would be a reflection of, and in term influence, the nuances with which these relationships are expressed and therefore also felt. Kin-terms specify the exact position of a person relative to the individual by relationship, age and sex. Although this is the basic frame, communities, families and individuals are permitted to play around with the terms, turning a kin term into a name-like word, replacing appropriate kin terms with another to indicate closeness or distance, and also using kin terms for unrelated people, what is called fictive kinship. When a person is labelled as a मासी (Ma-si) literally ‘like mother’, a person can be predisposed towards closeness from the start. For a father’s sister, the word is different and carries no such association. This has also been an issue we have discussed in an earlier post on the rather unique Hindi expression ‘Mamta‘, a words that is hard to translate without draining out its complex meanings.

Let us take a simple translation of words from other languages into English to demonstrate the point. Here is a list of some words from Hindi that can be hard to translate. We welcome you to add to this list based on your experiences.

Try a quick and easy translation of words like जुगाड़ (jugaad), ढाबा (dhaaba), जूठा (jootha), जिज्ञासा (jigyasa), राखी (rakhi), रिमझिम (rimjhim), मोक्ष (moksha), धर्म (dharma), कर्म (karma), योग (yoga), घमासान (ghamasaan), अड्डा (adda), रसा (rasa), and an answer will be evasive. Some of these concepts are so complex that you may require a paragraph, an essay or a thesis to fully explain the meanings trapped in these words. A closer look at some other words will work to dig deeper.

स्थापना (sthapana) and visarjan (Hindi): The annual celebrations related to Ganesh Chaturthi mark the sthapana (like installation, but much, much more) of Ganesha statues in homes and public spaces, symbolising the arrival of the elephant-headed god on earth from his Himalayan abode and celebrating the many qualities of this auspicious deity like wisdom, generosity, kindness, auspiciousness, self-control and an immense capacity to listen! At the end of the ten-day festivities of daily prayer, the statue is bid farewell in an elaborate send-off to drum-beats and dance, marking Ganesha’s departure to the heavenly abode. This final event in the annual cycle ends with the immersion of the statue into water, the sea, river or lake is labelled ‘visarjan‘. In this examples, both installation and immersion are examples of expressions that seem highly inadequate because they subtract from the depth and weight of these events in the social lives of practicing Hindus.

Itraana (Hindi): Also, how does one translate the delightful expression ‘itraana‘ that becomes transformed into “showing off” or “flaunting”……..it seems pointless to even start about the skew-ness in meaning, where the playfulness of the term is completely lost. In a recent interview on TV, the author Amish Tripathi relates the distinction between History and Mythology that has dominated discourse about the past in the English language is obscured in Hindi and Sanskrit, because Itihaas (Thus it happened) is a common word for both terms. Thus neither is History taken as hard fact, not is mythology dismissed as figments of the imagination. This changes our position on past stories quite profoundly, and we realise that History is just someone’s version of past events, and mythology is an expression of stories that guide our beliefs.

Let’s take examples from other languages to English. The Portuguese term ‘saudade‘ translates as the sad longing for something or someone, takes away the breath of life from how we heard it being used in Brazil. And from German, as Pooja discovers from her friend who finds it impossible to use the English alternative for Entschuldigung on account of a deeper meaning of accepting responsibility for an error that doesn’t seem to be communicated in the more universal “sorry”.


The tip-of-the-tongue syndrome or lethologica, refers to the the sudden loss of access to a word that one knows. An associated term is Lethonomia, the inability to remember the right name, when you encounter a known person. For those of us growing older, these troubles become increasingly evident. In today’s essay, we deal with another language issue that often disrupts conversations for multilinguals, and that is the inability to come up with an equivalent word in another known language. Sometimes it could be a simple forgetting or lethologica, when the relevant word dangles just at the tip-of-the-tongue, but here we pick specific instances where equvalent words in the ‘other language’ are simply not available. In such instance, one resorts to mixing languages (code switching within a conversation, or code-mixing), or flailing around with a long-winded explanation to try to capture the elusive meaning. Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel, uses the analogy of a flock of wild sheep as an analogy to describe the task of translation. In his own words:

The writer who determines to supervise the translations of his books finds himself chasing after hordes of words like a shepherd after a flock of wild sheep – a sorry figure to himself, a laughable one to others. I suspect that my friend Pierre Nora, editor of the magazine Le Debat, recognized the sadly comical quality of my shepherd existence. One day, with barely disguised compassion, he told me: ”Look, forget this torture, and instead write something for me. The translations have forced you to think about every one of your words. So write your own personal dictionary. A dictionary for your novels. Put down your key words, your problem words, the words you love….[Here Kundera starts to list his favourite words, among them….]…..Beauty, the last triumph possible for man who can no longer hope. Beauty in art: the suddenly kindled light of the never-before-said. This light that radiates from the great novels time can never dim, for human existence is perpetually being forgotten by man, and thus the novelists’ discoveries, however old they may be, will never cease to astonish us. BEING. Many friends advised me against the title ”The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Couldn’t I at least cut out the word ”being”? This word makes everyone uncomfortable. When they come across it, translators tend to substitute more modest expressions: ”existence,” ”life,” ”condition” . . . There was a Czech translator who decided to update Shakespeare: ”To live or not to live. . . .” But it’s precisely in that famous soliloquy that the difference between living and being is made clear: if after death we go on dreaming, if after death there still is something, then death (nonlife) does not free us of the horror of being. Hamlet raises the question of being, not of life. The horror of being: ”Death has two faces. One is nonbeing; the other is the terrifying material being of the corpse” (”The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”). 

In the incredibly well-researched podcast Radiolab by WNYC, host Jad Abumrad interviews Douglas Hofstadter, Professor of Cognitive Science at Indiana University and author of a book that shaped my early interest in meaning-making, Gödel, Escher and Bach. “That’s the question poking at our ribs this hour, as we wonder how it is that the right words can have the wrong meanings, and why sometimes the best translations lead us to an understanding that’s way deeper than language. This episode, a bunch of stories that play out in the middle space between one reality and another — where poetry, insult comedy, 911 calls, and even our own bodies work to close the gap. How close can words get you to the truth and feel and force of life?” As Hofstadter’s book goes into translation, he became concerned about translations and that “put me into the frame of mind of thinking, what kinds of crazy things can happen when you translate crazy texts. And all of a sudden one day …” he remembers a poem he read as a student of French at University, “A une Damoyselle malade. To A Sick Damsel, so to speak.….” How could one translate a crazy text like this? The conversation is a delight to listen to, because this exercise resulted in another volume: Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise Of The Music Of Language, about becoming lost in the art of translation (note that lost in art is an anagram of translation). As one review suggests: “The linguistic exuberance of this book, which was sparked a decade ago when Hofstadter, under the spell of an exquisite French miniature by Marot, got hooked on the challenge of recreating both its sweet message and its tight rhymes in English—jumping through two tough hoops at once.In the next few years, he not only did many of his own translations of Marot’s poem, but also enlisted friends, students, colleagues, family, noted poets, and translators—even three state-of-the-art translation programs!—to try their hand at this subtle challenge.The rich harvest is represented here by 88 wildly diverse variations on Marot’s little theme.”

Translation from one language to another, as Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra famously remarked, “….is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side, for although the figures are visible, they are covered by threads that obscure them, and cannot be seen with the smoothness and color of the right side.”

Sanskrit as Yoga: The Ontological significance of language

This article by Sonal Srivastava in conversation with Anuradha Choudry writes: “In Sanskrit, the goal is not only communication, it’s also about identifying truth structures; engaging with the language makes a greater demand on our being. Sanskrit requires us to be alert at all moments because every letter requires 100% attention with respect to breath, place of pronunciation and length of its vowel. For instance, when we say ‘Himaalaya,’ the word actually is a combination of hima and aalaya, ‘hima’ means ‘snow’, ‘aalaya’ means ‘abode,’ therefore ‘Himaalaya,’ means ‘the abode of snow’. There is a logical background behind naming anything because vaak, the word, and artha, the meaning, are intimately interconnected. When you distort the sound and say ‘Himalaaya’ instead, that logic is lost, and the core meaning is lost………Sanskrit and yoga psychology have similar focus. They are both techniques to help us understand ‘who we are’. Yoga psychology’s foundational premise is that we are essentially Consciousness, but we have forgotten we are That. It, therefore, proposes systematic methods to help us rediscover ourselves. Linguistically, Sanskrit facilitates that journey towards one’s Self. We generally use languages; we are in charge, we are the agent and language is our instrument. In the case of Sanskrit, with the mantra tradition in particular, the mantra should ideally become the agent and we should become instruments of its realisation. This is an important paradigm shift.
For me, the aha moment was when I realised that Sanskrit doesn’t have the verb ‘to have’. The word ‘have’ seems to evolve from a dualistic consciousness. When you say ‘I have a book’, you deprive the book of its existential quality. ‘It’ is not important, I am important; therefore, I can do whatever I want with it.’
When you say that ‘the book is with me,’ the book is the agent and therefore important, ‘I only remain a trustee of it.’ This thought reflects yogic world view that we are all trustees of the world and not its owners. It’s not like we don’t have any agency in life, but to believe that we have everything in control is the biggest illusion..”

Sanskrit is like an ocean of ideas, about life, ethics, positioning, perspective and depth. Unfortunately, although many of us have studied Sanskrit at school, at least my experience has been that the classes failed to generate a passion for the language, especially because at that time and in convent school teaching, it was treated as a ‘dead’ language. It’s never too late to start again!


  1. Nandita, you have captured a discussion that we often have in our family. My two sons have been raised in USA and around Hindi, English, Kashmiri, and then a few Marathi words. So they speak not hinglush but ‘Enghind’ but often realize that I am unable to give them a literal translation of a word in another language. You also made me think how hard it must for those who translate to do a good job. I often make fun of the English subtitles in the Hindi movies and feel bad for my spouse who has to depend on the subtitles to enjoy Bollywood movies! Lastly, I completely agree with you about Sanskrit, it needs to be taught with the passion and the power it has, but before that can happen we Indians will need to first believe that our culture is worth preserving and it is OK to be fluent in Sanskrit, Hindi, our mother tongue, and English.


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