BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

What a Wonderful Word by Nicola Edwards, illustrated by Luisa Uribe

Earlier this year, the National Book Foundation announced the addition of a fifth National Book Award: the National Book Award for Translated Literature. The news made me positively giddy: such specific recognition feels long overdue because I’m convinced translators do some of the hardest literary work.

Translating between languages is almost never a process of word-for-word matching. Some words need contextual explication, others are just elusive to replicate in another language. And then there are these 29 “untranslatable words” that, as author Nicola Edwards explains in her introduction, “are great examples of how beautiful language can be. It can always surprise us and teach us new things about ourselves, each other, and the world.”

These days, I’ve been feeling we’re living in a state of koyaanisqatsi (Hopi for “[n]ature that is out of balance or a way of life that is so crazy it cannot continue long term”). Escaping the nonstop gobbledygook (English for “[t]ext or speech that contains a lot of complicated jargon”) that’s choking our capital city, I’ve been enjoying the gluggaveður (Icelandic for “[w]eather that looks beautiful while you’re inside, but is much too cold when you step outside”) far away, even though I’m usually a total friolero (Spanish for “[s]omeone who is always cold”). Thanks to the time zone change, I’ve actually been practicing the occasional gökotta (Swedish for “[t]o wake up early in the morning so you can go outside to hear the first birds singing”).

Basking in the retrouvailles (French for the “happiness of being reunited with someone after a long time apart”) of having the whole family in a single location, being surrounded by our local nakama (Japanese for “[f]riends who are like family”), we’re all grateful for the nam jai (Thai for a “spirit of selfless generosity and kindness; a willingness to make sacrifices for friends and extend hospitality to strangers”) of our extended community here.

In addition to providing linguistic enlightenment, Edwards and her artistic co-hort, Luisa Uribe, personify whimsy (English for “[p]layfully quaint or fanciful behavior or humor”). Each word is presented on a two-page spread complete with originating language, definition, and additional context, history, factoids, and all manner of tidbits to enhance your understanding. Some words are just jaw-droppingly funny: poronkusema – Finnish for the “distance a reindeer can walk before needing to use the bathroom.” Some are thoroughly heart-melting: ishq – Arabic for a “perfect love without jealousy or inconsistency that holds two people together.” Some are spot-on perfection: pelinti – Buli for “[t]o move food that is too hot around your mouth as you wait for it to cool down.”

The pronunciation guide on the final page is, ironically, the only disappointment. For all the fun and fabulousness in the rest of the book, the penultimate word, kawaakari, is not pronounced “Ka-wah-ka-ree”; that’s actually missing a syllable. The word is a compound of two distinct words, kawa (川, or river) and akari (明かり, or light, glow), and is pronounced in five syllables, “ka-wa-a-ka-ri.” It’s a quibble, yes, but I admit I paused over the accuracy of the other pronunciations, beyond the “rough guide” warning at the top of the page. A next printing could easily fix the small error … and given the book’s guaranteed goofy grin-inducing effect on readers, that second (third, fifth?) printing should be more than just a possibility.

Readers: Children, Middle Grade

Published: 2018


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