I was reading the “contradictory identities” thread and someone mentioned a menage a trois, and I though, well, of course we use a French expression for that – what other language would we use?
So what other examples of untranslatable phrases have that certain je ne sais quois – are so thoroughly part of (our preconceptions about) the culture involved that we borrow the phrase from that language and no other?
Sorry – apparently my OP wasn’t clear. I’m not saying these phrases can’t be translated – I’m saying there’s something so right about the fact that the culture that gave birth to them is the culture that gave birth to them. that we use that language to convey a certain je ne sais quoi that refers to a whole cultural gestalt – a weltanshaung, dare I say? We do say “la dolce vita,” not “the sweet life.” to evoke a certain mood or vibe. Menage a trois is a perfect example – as nametag points out, it’s not about a threesome (a drunken misadventure stumbled into way too late some Saturday night in Amarillo) but a permanent living arrangement involving three people of the world in an exquisitely decorated apartment in the 19th Arondissment. Would the Japanese come up with the idea of a menage a trois? Would the Russians? And, okay, suppose they did – the Japanese term, or the Russian, wouldn’t have the same connotation of sophisticated naughtiness that using a French term conveys.
Those are the kinds of phrases I’m looking for. I’m suggesting there’s something about the whole Eastern European Jewish experience evoked in the world shlemiel/; something about a particularly German kind of cosiness embedded in gemutlich
It’s in reverse, and I don’t know how accurate it is, but Bill Bryson commented on the french phrase “le dirtyweekend” that he found it tremendously endearing of them that they had no word of their own for an illegitimate bonk between friday and monday.
My own offering: thoyle. A Yorkshire word meaning “to spend more on something than you could bear to.” (It’s only used in the negative, as in “I couldn’t thoyle to spend that much on it”)