Tim Lomas


On his book Translating Happiness: A Cross-Cultural Lexicon of Well-Being

Cover Interview of February 27, 2019

The wide angle

The book draws on numerous theoretical and empirical paradigms. Perhaps foremost among these is the linguistic relativity hypothesis (LRH), also popularly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This paradigm holds that culture, via language, influences how people experience and understand the world. The stronger version of this hypothesis is linguistic determinism, whereby language is seen as inextricably constituting thought. By contrast, the milder version simply asserts that language shapes thought and experience in some way. The book is aligned with this latter perspective. In relation to untranslatable words, the stronger deterministic view suggests that only people enmeshed in the culture that produced a given word can truly understand or experience the phenomenon that the word signifies. However, the milder relativistic perspective holds that such words are to an extent accessible to people outside the culture, holding some universal relevance, even if non-native speakers may not fully understand all of a word’s layers and textures.

The possibility that untranslatable words are accessible and relevant to people outside the language that created them leads to a powerful observation. Beyond just being informative vis-à-vis the culture that created a given word, such words can enrich other lexicons. Indeed, the process of cultures ‘borrowing’ words from one another in this way is central to language development and to cultural evolution more broadly. For instance, of the more than 600,000 lexemes in the OED, the percentage of borrowed words is estimated to be as high as 41%. Such words may be borrowed if a language lacks its own word for a specific referent; for example, if a new invention, practice, or idea is introduced to a culture. Thus, these borrowed words fill ‘semantic gaps’ in the language, allowing speakers to articulate concepts they had previously struggled to, or perhaps had not even been inclined to. Thereby a culture’s vocabulary is enriched, and its understanding and articulation of the world is enhanced. Thus, the broad aim of the book is that by studying untranslatable words, the field of psychology can develop a more nuanced, comprehensive, and cross-cultural perspective on wellbeing.

The genesis of the project lies back in 1998, when I went to teach English in China before starting university. The trip exploded my horizons – physically, emotionally, intellectually. At every turn I encountered new sights and sounds, people and places. Most relevantly, I came across new ideas. I spend some time travelling around the country, and was particularly fascinated by its monasteries, Taoist and Buddhist, and became absorbed in their mysteries. Key among these were new concepts I encountered – from Tao to nirvāna. I did not understand what they meant (and still don’t fully) but could tell they were important. I also realized the significance of us lacking equivalents in English. However comprehensive our grasp of life may be, without such concepts, it is surely incomplete. This recognition stayed with me as I entered university to study psychology, and some years after that to teach it as a lecturer. As well-developed as the field is, despite being an international endeavour, it is mostly conducted in English. Its understanding of the mind is therefore shaped, and limited by, the contours of that language. As a result, it risks overlooking valuable ideas and insights developed in other cultures and languages – like Tao and nirvāna.

These thoughts were percolating in my mind for some years. However, they were not my direct research focus until recently. In the meantime, I completed my PhD, which focused on the impact of meditation on men’s mental health, and subsequently established myself as a lecturer in positive psychology. Then, in 2015, at an international conference I stumbled upon a talk by a Finnish researcher, Emilia Lahti, on the concept of sisu, which may be described as a form of extraordinary courage and determination, especially in the face of adversity. For some reason, the talk really struck home and set off a train of thought and action, which led me to launch this project. Returning home to England, I was chatting with my mum about the conference, and the talk, and our conversation turned to the notion of untranslatable words. Between us we speak a handful of languages – including French and German – and we began to drum up examples of such terms from among these tongues. As we spoke, an idea began to glimmer in my mind of creating a collection of such words, focusing on wellbeing, with the aim of enriching the field in the ways outlined above. I then dropped this thought itself into the dialogue, and by the end of the conversation we had formulated some specific ideas for initiating the project. In this way, the lexicography was born and soon after the book in question here.