How Untranslatable Words Have Connected Me to My Mother
“In Cantonese,” my mother says, “love isn’t so frivolous.”
My mother doesn’t understand love. At least, not the word. At least, not in English. A month after I’ve given birth, she has come to meet her grandson so I can get some sleep. But I don’t sleep. Instead, we stay up late and chat—something we’ve always done. Late one night, we’re sitting on the couch talking about the differences between English and Cantonese, and she mentions the word love. “You love your husband,” my mother says, holding out one hand. “But you also love a pair of shoes,” she continues, holding out the other. Then she throws up both hands. “It makes no sense!”
I think of all the things I’ve said I love. Nice weather. Donuts. Frasier reruns. My son. Okay, she has a point. But in Cantonese, how else would you describe the way you feel about, I don’t know, a really good cookie? I ask her, taking a bite of my Sausalito. Our favorite. “You like cookies,” my mother scoffs. “You don’t love them.”
In English, love exists on a spectrum from cheese to your offspring. But in my mother’s language, “I love you” means something a little different. It isn’t just a casual declaration at the end of a phone call. It’s more of a eulogy—heavier, more dramatic. “In Cantonese,” my mother says, “love isn’t so frivolous.” I want to talk about this more, but I leave it there. When I push conversations too far, she likes to change the subject.
If human experiences are universal, how can those experiences vary from language to language? And how can some words not translate at all? There’s the Danish word hygge, for example. It might translate in English to something like “coziness,” but it’s actually a whole aesthetic that takes 1,600 English words to describe. “Untranslatable words can expand our emotional and cognitive horizons,” writes psychologist and linguist Tim Lomas. They push us to think differently and to change our cognition and perspective, he argues, because they offer a glimpse into the values and traditions of other cultures.
If human experiences are universal, how can those experiences vary from language to language?
In Cantonese, for example, “I love you”—“ngo oi nei”—is an overly earnest phrase that you wouldn’t use in everyday conversation. Maybe because the culture is more reserved, it’s just not something people say very often.Even if you do love someone, you’d hardly ever tell them. Instead, you might say something like, “I like you very much.”
I used to think it was just my family that was this way. For example, I once said “I love you” to my aunt and uncle after I spent the afternoon visiting them. My aunt replied,“Okay,” and shuffled me out the door. On the ride home, I complained about this to my mother. “Of course they love you,” she laughed. “Chinese people just don’t say things like that.” Maybe it was true, I thought. I never heard my mom say it to her brothers and sisters. I never heard my grandmother say it to anyone. And that afternoon, when I’d said it to my aunt and uncle, they smiled uncomfortably, like I’d just asked them out on a date. How weird, I told my mom. If you love someone, why wouldn’t you just say it? “It is kind of weird,” she said. “I don’t know why we do things this way.” Although I understood it was a cultural norm and not something to be taken personally, I still admired my mother’s willingness to question it. She wanted things to be different. “Ngo wing jyun oi nei,” she tells me every time we hang up the phone. I love you forever.
Staying up late has always been our thing. When I was a teenager, my mom and I would stay up together on Friday nights, long after my dad and brother had gone to bed, watching reruns of What Not to Wear. During commercial breaks, I’d look over and catch her nodding off in what seemed like the most uncomfortable position to fall asleep—sitting up, slouched over the armrest with her chin tucked into her chest. “Why don’t you just go to bed?” I’d ask. She would briefly open her eyes and whisper, “m se dak fan,” before falling back to sleep.
“M se dak fan” is a Cantonese phrase that translates to “revenge sleep procrastination.” In English, these are just three random words that mean basically nothing. In Chinese, revenge sleep procrastination is refusing to go to bed because you want the day to last longer—a way of protesting your responsibilities during the day. It’s a common Chinese phrase but one that also feels unique to my mother: a woman who values hard work but also defies the constraints of work in her own life. She finds small ways to experience joy, even when joy comes at the expense of her own comfort. For me, “m se dak fan” also feels like those Friday nights with my mother.
The right word can change the way you experience something. And sometimes the right word is in a different language. Eunoia, an online database created by developer Steph Smith, tracks hundreds of these words. When you search by language, certain themes emerge. “I’ve learned that each of these words offers a window to understand different cultures,” Smith writes on her blog, “which can influence anything from the way you make decisions to the habits you form.” Maybe that explains why I still like staying up late. Untranslatable words have also helped me understand my mom a little better. I can see what the world looks like through her language. “Words allow us to take something we experience, ranging in complexity, and translate it to another human (or ourselves) in familiar terms,” Smith continues.
My mother and I used to speak the same language, but I stopped speaking Cantonese when I was eight, when kids at school would spit a jumble of words at me to mimic what they thought Chinese sounded like. How strange to hear these attempts at my mother language used in a way to make me feel small. My eight-year-old brain didn’t understand that this was racism and, thus, didn’t know how to process it. I simply stopped speaking Cantonese.
The right word can change the way you experience something.
But I still loved hearing Cantonese from my mother.Our family spent every Thanksgiving at my aunt’s house, where they spoke both English and Cantonese. When my uncle would bring out the turkey, it was time for English. My mom would smile and do her best to make small talk. She would comment on how delicious the food looked, politely asking, “Can you pass the green beans, m goi?” After dinner, it was time for Cantonese. My mom and aunt would move to the breakfast table in the kitchen and slurp on bowls of jook—a type of soup similar to congee —shouting and complaining about their coworkers or siblings or kids. I would sit and listen.
The ends of my mother’s sentences were defiant and drawn out, like the words were being yanked from her mouth. One year, they were shouting so loud across the table I thought they’d gotten into a fight. I asked if everything was okay. “Oh, everything’s fine,” my mom smiled in English. “We’re just talking about work.” Then she went back to shouting in Cantonese. Stories seemed much more colorful in Cantonese than they did in English, and I wondered how well I could know my mother when I couldn’t see those colors. Like the word love, something of her seemed to be lost in translation.
Something is always lost in translation because words are more than their literal meanings. They carry history, tradition, experience, and identity. Lomas explains, “Even if languages seem to have roughly equivalent words—amour as the French counterpart to love, for instance—translators have long argued that something precious is always lost in the act of translation.” Kind of like a breakup song: You may understand the words, but you feel them in an entirely different way when you experience heartbreak for the first time.
Ten years ago, when I moved away from home, my mom gave me a photo album of her childhood. We looked through it during one of our “m se dak fan” late-night couch sessions—running our fingers over the thin plastic sheets that held photographs of her life in Hong Kong. I examined every detail of the black-and-white pictures of my aunts and uncles posing on cobblestone streets. Or the one of my stoic grandmother sitting in a small room. I could see my mother’s eyes in a photo of a young child with boy-short hair and delicate shoulders. She sat next to a guitar that belonged to the family they were living with. Seven children in one room. In another photo, my uncle held a Popsicle. “It was a special occasion,” my mom said. What was the occasion? I asked. “The Popsicle,” she laughed.
It was such a rare treat for her family to have food like this that they had to take a picture. She told me the same stories she’d been telling me since I was a kid. How she and her siblings were so hungry that they would root around the streets, looking for food or candy people spat out. And her recurring childhood dream of biting into a loaf of raisin bread only to wake up right before she could taste it. “I would close my eyes and try to go back to sleep,” she said, “to see if I could finish the bite.” But it was always just out of reach.
As a kid, my brother and I rolled our eyes at these back-in-my-day stories. They were just words. Looking at the photos now, it occurs to me that there are two versions of my mother: The one that speaks English politely and quietly, and the Cantonese-speaking version who lived through obstacles I will never fully understand. Something precious is always lost in the act of translation, but maybe that’s also true for the act of storytelling. When my mother tells me these stories in English, something of her experience is lost, and when I pass down these stories to my own child, even more will be lost. Or maybe it can evolve in some way. I suppose we do the best we can to preserve our histories, our traditions, our cultures, and our identities with the words we have.
What makes untranslatable words so appealing? There’s the Welsh word hiraeth, for example. It describes a longing for a time, place, or person that feels like home but that may no longer exist or that never existed at all. When I look at that old photo album, I feel full of hiraeth. Sitting on the couch with my baby and my mother, talking about love, I look into her eyes and am reminded of that picture of her next to the guitar. I see our lineage in her face. Even though I wasn’t there and even though my life experiences are so different from her’s—down to the words I use—I feel close to my mother through that photograph. I have the urge to find that childhood version of her, put my hands on her shoulders, and tell her I love her, even more than she loves dreaming about raisin bread. It’s satisfying to have a word for that feeling.
Words can only take us so far, but they’re all we have to express who we are and how we feel. When I think of my mother, I like to think about that version of her at my aunt’s breakfast table. Or the one who stays up late, telling me stories about Hong Kong. I prefer the version of my mother who is louder, happier, angrier, funnier. Hearing her talk this way to my aunt, I’ve always wondered what it is of my mother I’m missing and will always miss because I can’t understand the words she’s saying. It’s possible that there’s too much of her to put into words in any language.
Kristin Wong is a freelance writer and journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, ELLE, Travel + Leisure, and The Cut among other publications. She frequently writes about behavior and identity and is also a staff writer and researcher at Hidden Brain Media, where she contributes to the Hidden Brain podcast and radio show.