All English speakers of Italian will know how useful the little word magari can be. It expresses regret or longing, irritation or delight, according to tone and context. Whatever it means, it means it more effectively than any single English word. Students who ask for a translation watch me squirm as I come out with a five-, six-, seven-word expression that works just once. They’re generally too polite to say it, but their faces say it for them. How on earth do you manage?
Magari is one of a thousand words that don’t have any simple linguistic equivalent in English. Italian, on the other hand, doesn’t have a host of mundane, earthy terms such as, well, splodge. You can’t skedaddle in Italian or faff around (I don’t think) or squish. The range of Duh is only half-captured by the more historic Boh, immortalised by Moravia. In language, evolutionary niches always get filled but no one would seriously suggest that a giant terrestrial parrot has the elegance of a gazelle. Nor that a gazelle has the wonky charm of the now sadly extinct giant terrestrial parrot.
If you’re amused by this kind of thing, as I am, you’ll probably enjoy, as I would, a book called Toujours Tingo by the splendidly named Adam Jacot de Boinod. For more about the book, see this review. Here’s the first paragraph, to whet your appetite and, possibly, if you’re French, to wet your finger (Yes, I’m thinking chapponage):
Tsonga speakers who have had a fruitless day’s labour know it simply as walkatia. For Anglophones, it is the act of throwing down a tool in disgust. Someone fluent in Bakweri might soothe his walkatia by looking at a womba – the smile of a sleeping child. But all would probably shy at a Frenchman’s offer of a spot of chapponage – the act of sliding a finger into a chicken’s backside to see if it is laying an egg.