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Culture clue: "esprit de l'escalier" and other untranslatable moments.

mtaussig's picture
on Wed, 02/15/2012 - 09:41

In between helping my dad, Hal Taussig, get Untours started in the 70's and returning in the 00's (once I had a family to raise and expose to international travel the way my father had done for me), I had another job. 

For about a decade, I taught cultural diversity workshops to corporate employees.  It's not a big surprise that I end up permanently fascinated by cultures. During my sophomore year in high school, my dad, then a high school teacher, had taken me out of school for a year  -- his sabbatical year.  We'd travelled Europe (Hal, my mom, Norma, and I) while Dad "homeschooled" me through 10th grade. From that trip, came Hal Taussig's idea: Untours.   I brought home a permanent case of culture-itis.  I just never, ever get tired of that "aha moment" when you realize that the world you see isn't the only one out there.  Your world is framed by the culture you came from. Others are looking at the same world, through a different frame, and things look very different to them.  Nowhere is that frame more vivid or amusing than in the languages we speak. 

If you name something, it becomes more real.  That concept is delightfully illustrated in a book: They have a Word for It, by the inimitable Howard Rheingold.  He calls it a "Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases."  Since we're covering France this month, I thought I'd share a few of Rheingold's words and phrases from the French:

  • Esprit de l'escalier: literally translated, it means 'the spirit of the staircase'.  Rheingold translates its fuller meaning as 'the clever remark that comes to mind when it is too late to utter it.'  And haven't we all had one of those moments?!  "Oh, man!" we say, "If I'd only thought of that then!"
  • Faux frais: literally meaning: false cool, false fresh.  Actual meaning: items that you are likely to forget when making a budget.  I recognize that phenomenon all too well!  My construction contractor husband and I built our own house and we were certain we knew just what we were doing. I can't tell you how many faux frais we discovered, to our dismay.  So many things that must be paid for, that you never think about!  In fact, faux frais is such a useful concept that it's used, in the French, as an English economic term now.  Just Google it.  Wikipedia will tell you that it means "incidental operating expenses incurred in the productive investment of capital."

How we say things changes how we think about things.   A label, as opposed to an unnamed inkling, can in fact make things more or less real. If John and I had known the concept faux frais, for example, we'd have budgeted more wisely.  The thing that you knew and experienced, but never named, is a tad less real than the ones that have a clear label.  And some things that are real, you don't see, till someone labels it.  As in, "OF COURSE, there were extras we didn't think of...there always are!"

Without a label,  your too-late-to-use clever comeback, is just a bummer.  With a label  -- l'esprit de l'escalier  -- you 're joining in a nearly universal human experience.  We hope that next time you head out on an Untour, or any travels outside your home turf, tune your ears, and open your mind.  Do you have a favorite "untranslatable phrase'? from another language?  Why not add it in thte comments below? 

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