internet culture

This Instagram artist is illustrating untranslatable words and the result will make you feel ambedo

Since April, Rituparna Sarkar has posted over eighty culture-specific words in German, Spanish, Japanese, Tulu and Bengali.

Did you know that bandana – the large kerchief worn as a fashion accessory across cultures – comes from a Hindi word that originates from the Sanskrit term badhnati? Do you suffer from tsundoku, Japanese for the compulsive habit of hoarding new books you may never read? Are you great at desencranco – the Portuguese word for coming up with a clever, albeit last minute-solution to a problem, much like the homegrown “jugaad”?

To follow Rituparna Sarkar on Instagram, is to experience the indefinable thrill of discovering untranslatable foreign words. Sarkar, a Mumbai-based designer, decided to participate in artist Elle Luna’s social media movement, #The100DayProject (that calls upon people to participate in 100 days of creating and documenting anything they’re passionate about) in April. The result, #100daysofdiscoveringwords has been both a horizon and vocabulary-expanding experience.

“I was getting a little tired of commercial projects, the strange briefs from clients, unrealistic timelines and crazy budgets,” said Sarkar, the co-founder of Bombay Design House, a firm that specialises in illustrations, animation and video content. “I wanted to do something for myself. That’s when my business partner suggested the #The100DayProject, which was about to begin.”

With a full-time job, the biggest challenge for the 33-year-old designer was to cultivate the discipline to see the project through – this meant picking a relevant theme so she wouldn’t run out of ideas. At the time, Sarkar was reading Meik Wiking’s bestselling book The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well, when she stumbled upon the word tokka – Finnish for a large horde of reindeers.

“It’s one of those unique words that only exists in Finnish,” she said. “I found it interesting how words come up in different cultural contexts, but don’t have direct translations in other languages,” said Sarkar. Tokka became her first illustration-explained post on Instagram.

Ambedo: a kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details.

Politics of language

Once she had decided on her project, Sarkar began to research untranslatable words and build a database. Thus far, she has illustrated words in German, Japanese, Korean, English, Italian, Argentinian and Spanish. The illustrations, usually in watercolour, are quirky, tongue-in-cheek and occasionally political. For instance the popular German word schadenfreude, that refers to the feeling of deriving pleasure from others’ misfortunes, includes a sketch of Donald Trump at the podium. Dapjeongneo, the Korean word for asking someone a question you already know the answer to, but are waiting for the person to confirm, is depicted through an illustration of Kim Jong-Un asking an audience who the greatest leader in the world is – as a chorus recites his name.

"Day 45 - Again I got caught up looking up Colonial ties... so here s a word appropriated by the Portuguese from an Arabic word. The current day Urdu word 'Lashkar' (meaning Army) used by some terrorist groups is a derivative of this word." Image and caption: Rituparna Sarkar

The obscure term that became a buzzword on the Indian internet after senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor used it to refer to a popular journalist – farrago, was explained through a box of Haldiram’s namkeen to suggest a confused mixture. “The Haldiram’s bit came to my mind as soon as I heard the word, and I knew it was something Indians would instantly relate with,” Sarkar said. “There are many words that have a serious connotation so I wanted to depict them in a lighter vein.”

Sarkar also illustrates native Indian terms like putush, an onomatopoeic Bengali word and kaali-peeli, a term commonly used by Mumbaikars to refer to the city’s black-and-yellow taxis.

“It’s incredible how many words Indians have that exist only in that language,” Sarkar said. “I came across a Tulu word for the act of licking your plate clean because the food is so delicious. I’m yet to illustrate that one.”

Given her love for puns, Sarkar also throws in words she’s invented into the mix, like bloatilla: bloated people floating in a pool on a hot summer’s day. Or cabaraderie, for the bonding between a cab driver and passenger over traffic and shared experiences.

With 20 words to go before she completes her project, Sarkar is contemplating compiling a limited edition coffee-table book of illustrations, and making bigger prints of selected words for friends.

“There’s peace of mind in just sitting down to paint something,” she said. “After starting this [project], I notice words everywhere. I went for a meeting recently and the conference room had a framed picture of the word ufanisi, Swahili for efficiency. The first thing I did was take a picture.”

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