Mistranslate 切ない (Setsunai): When You Need a Word to Hold Both Sorrow and Joy
‘Setsunai’ implies something once bright, now faded. It is the painful twinge at the edge of a memory, the joy in the knowledge that everything is temporary.
This is Mistranslate , a monthly column by Nina Li Coomes about language, self-expression, and what it means to exist between cultures.
After a brutal year of continuous job rejections following graduation, I finally secured a position working as a news producer for a Japanese news network in their New York bureau. My duties included working with a team of reporters, producers, and photographers to cover news in the Western hemisphere for Japanese audiences. I found interviewing people thrilling, even when it meant jabbing a microphone into the face of an unsuspecting New Yorker to see if they might tell me what they thought of exploding cell phones. I basked in my fellow producers’ advice. I adored the mad dash to cover a breaking story. I became attached to my work phone, mumbling to myself about primaries and candidates. I felt well-balanced, speaking Japanese from nine to five and then recounting the day’s events in English during my nightly phone call to my boyfriend. I was exhausted all the time, but I loved my job so much I usually stayed past the end of my shift, watching the minutes pass and hoping more news would break.
I also threw myself into my work because I was deeply lonely. Moving from Chicago to New York was the first time I’d ever been separated from my parents, my sister, my partner, the posse of fierce and loving friends who lived in my neighborhood. In New York, I was completely and totally alone. I went on blind friend-dates, awkwardly navigating brunches and spin classes. I made a lot of phone calls to friends in different states. I wrote a lot of letters. I took myself out, posting up in Washington Square Park with a book, weaving through the throngs of tourists in SoHo, window-shopping at Dean and Deluca. I became a connoisseur of the solo matinee. I felt eternally grateful to the New York custom of eating while walking, as I hated sitting in a restaurant alone. By Sunday afternoon, I always longed for Monday and its bustling sense of purpose.
After these long Sundays alone in Manhattan, I usually rode the N train home to my apartment. For those of you who have never been on the Astoria-bound N train, it runs underground in Manhattan—but once it clears the East River, heading into Queens, it pulls itself up and out of the tunnels, rumbling above rooftops and streets below. When the train emerged at Queensboro Plaza, I would peer into the windows of other people’s apartments for a half-second before the train blazed by. I’d see people backlit by the soft glow of old lamps, standing at stoves or gathering in living rooms. I might catch the tiny drama of someone reaching across the back of a sofa to drape their arm around another, or the tense postures of an argument unfolding.
As I watched these split-second tableaus unfold, I would feel a soft ache spreading in my chest—a brief squeezing of the esophageal tract, a swirl of emotions rising. I watched people go home to someone, or be at home with someone. I had been one of those people once, going home to a warm home and a raucous family. I knew I would be one of those people again. Now, though, I was going home alone. I felt jealous and in awe, lonely and yet filled with a kind of borrowed warmth. In Japanese, this array of feeling is known as 切ない.
切ない or setsunai is often listed among Japanese words that lack an English counterpart. Clumsily translated, it means wistful, or bittersweet, but it also means more than that. In online Japanese-to-English translation forums, people ask again and again: How do we translate setsunai? Even in Japanese, the word is difficult to parse.
The last two characters in 切ない represent the sounds “na” and “i,” and are from the phonetic Japanese alphabet, hiragana. Japanese written language uses three different alphabets in combination: hiragana is phonetic; katakana is also phonetic, but most often employed to depict words with foreign origins or onomatopoeia; and the last, kanji, uses classical Chinese characters. The Japanese language is a constant stringing together of these three disparate parts, adding phonetic kana for grammatical purposes while relying on pictographic kanji almost as concept-abbreviation for words with larger meanings. Even with the use of kanji, there are often two or three different ways one character can be pronounced. Japanese words are pluripotent: They are large, and contain multitudes.
Setsunai is one such expansive word. Taken by itself, the kanji that provides the “setsu” portion of setsunai is 切 (meaning “cut”). The two pictographs that make up 切 mean seven, 七, and katana, or a Japanese-style sword, 刀. It makes sense that seven swords should then mean “cut” or “to cut,” but the word’s connection to a wistful, nostalgic feeling is less clear.
Setsunai carries an implication of something once bright, now faded. It is the painful twinge at the edge of a memory of someone you have loved—say, the memory of a Saturday spent together running errands, or a brilliant peel of a smile tossed at you over the lunch table—all the while knowing that person is no longer with you. It is the sting of time passing. It is the joy afloat in the knowledge that everything is temporary. Perhaps, then, the cutting implicit in setsunai is the way the passage of time eventually draws a thin line of blood, of pain, across even the roundest, fullest happiness.
Once, during my first autumn in New York, I called my mother from the aisle of a Duane Reade. I was killing time before getting on a late-night flight to Portland, Maine, where I planned to meet my boyfriend. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” I said to her. “I feel happy when I wake up, but sad walking home from the train station at night.”
It was true: Every morning, I would wake to find my covers pulled up to my pinkening nose, and I would eagerly inhale the chill in the air, the changing of the seasons. I took an inordinate pleasure in locating my slippers, cheerfully clomping around the apartment as if reunited with two furry pets. I took photographs of my breakfasts and posted them online with rapturous captions about sweaters and hot tea and brilliant flashes of red in once-green trees. But when the sun began to sink, my cheer faded. I felt inexplicably sorrowful, as if in seasonal mourning. I’d go to bed dragging my slippered feet, only to wake up to joy all over again.
“Probably it’s your Japanese and American side fighting,” my mother said. “In America, people love autumn because they love the seasonal change. But in Japan, we think fall is sad because summer is dying. サッドより切ないんじゃない？” (“Instead of sad, maybe you are setsunai?”)
I thought about my mother’s theory as I purchased a pack of gum and headed for the LaGuardia-bound M60 bus. Images of my father flinging open his office windows, extolling the crisp, cold air, juxtaposed with my mother’s grim hunkering-down as she exchanged loose airy garments for padded, bulky sweaters. She was right—it was not that I was feeling sorrowful or depressed; I was feeling setsunai. In greeting the coming season, I was also remembering the summer, its blaze and humidity, the carefree feelings it inspired, and experiencing a pinprick of sorrow in its passing.
In some ways, that is all that setsunai means: the ability to carry sorrow and joy at once. Feeling it all together, allowing sorrow to co-mingle with fond remembrance, is what it means to feel setsunai. I find it is similar to the experience of speaking these two mistranslated languages of mine, holding two tongues in my one mouth. It reminds me of how I feel when I know there is a word for something in my other tongue; it reminds me of the pleasure of precise articulation and the frustration of not being able to bridge the gap.
After two years or so, I left New York. It was not easy to leave. After those lonely days of taking myself home on the train, wistfully looking into lit up windows, feeling setsunai, I fell into a loving knot of outspoken, boisterous Asian American women. My solo matinees became double matinees; my long walks alone became meandering discussions with friends at the Washington Square Dog Park.
Slowly but surely, I built a community. I had people I could go home to. People who expected me at certain times for dinner. People who also had two tongues, and who knew the bilingual bind of articulation in one language and frustration in the other. People who were my found family, and precious to me. When I left them, I wondered if I would feel that familiar ache again, on a different train in a different city.
I moved into a tiny one-bedroom studio on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, where the entire room was oriented toward a large bay window facing a train line. Night after night, I would curl up on my too-cheap couch, watching the train roll by, squeaking and groaning. I would see commuters packed together during rush hour, some reading books, highlighted in fluorescent yellow rectangles. Sometimes I would catch the eye of a traveler, looking out at the windows as I once did. I wondered what I must look like to them in my lit-up room, reading, talking, flitting about or having new friends over for dinner. I wondered what tableaus of mine that traveler might have seen. I thought of my friends in New York, the life I managed to construct there, remembering with joy while retaining a sense of loss. I loved those friends, and I missed them. I was feeling 切ない.