When you first start learning a language, it seems like for every English word there is an exactly analagous word in your target language – table corresponds with la mesa in Spanish; tea with le thé in French and so on.
For the majority of concrete nouns, this works pretty well – after all, how many different ways can a culture interpret a lemon or a moustache?
However, once you begin learning more complex, abstract words, especially those relating to the soul or to the human condition, things get more complicated. You find that you can’t translate some concepts in a straightforward manner; even more interesting is when you find words in your target language for which there is no satisfactory English equivalent.
One of my favourites of these words is the Russian emotion тоска (toska). Toska is translated variously as misery, melancholia, or, my personal favourite, as existential agony. Readers of Russian literature will certainly recognise this phenomenon as one of Russian authors’ favourite themes; my literature teacher went as far as to say that Russian stories with happy endings aren’t really Russian at all.
Vladimir Nabokov, author of such masterpieces as Lolita and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, had this to say about toska:
“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
The thing, in my opinion, which makes this word more interesting, is the way that, despite the fact that we have no exact equivalent, we recognise it intuitively. It’s moments like these that I wonder what other untranslatable but somehow perfectly understandable words exist.