Say it better – words from other languages

Gail Holloway author

You can become a better traveller by paying attention to words that don’t exist in English, says travel writer Brian Johnston. He went on to talk about a Dutch word voopret, which literally translates as ‘pre-fun’, and might be used to describe the feeling of excitement we get when planning a trip. While foreign travel is off limits at present, maybe we can have some voorpret by fantasising about our travel wish-list.

Japanese gems

In Cherry Blossom Footsteps, I’ve used some uniquely Japanese words to describe Lauren’s experiences.

Wabi sabi is a Zen term describing the beauty of imperfect and impermanent things; a bit like shabby chic, but with more substance.

The impermanence of the hanami cherry blossom time is one example – the fleeting days when trees burst into bloom then all too soon see the petals drift away.

Wabi-Sabi is a combination of two words. Wabi refers to the kind of beauty found in asymmetrical, uneven or unbalanced things – like a piece of lopsided pottery. Sabi is the beauty of aged things. An example of sabi is the patina on a vintage metal poster or a distressed wall on an old building.

Wabi sabi in Kanazawa
Wabi sabi – Vintage collectibles store, Kanazawa, 2017

This philosophy encourages us to appreciate what we have in our daily lives, knowing there will be imperfections and celebrating the way things are rather than how they should be.

Me in kimono with Tomoko, my fabulous Kyoto host, 2017

Similar in Japanese is Shibui – a way of describing how some things improve elegantly with age. It acknowledges that gained wisdom can create an inner beauty and self-assurance. It applies to buildings, art work, etc. – but also to people.

‘Coming to Japan from a country as young as Australia,’ Lauren said. ‘You can get a sense of the history of the place just by walking around the streets. There’s a real feeling that the experiences of the past are accumulated in the very walls and floors, and I reckon the surroundings seem to enjoy a quiet confidence. I think it’s nice to have a word to capture the essence of that concept.’

When Lauren found out the meaning of shibui from Kiko, her thoughts had turned to Helen. With all Helen’s life experience, Lauren could appreciate the inner confidence and aura of self-assurance that her nan exuded. Or, as Kiko might’ve put it, Helen was someone who ‘radiates a beauty that stems from becoming truly herself’.

Cherry Blossom Footsteps

Mono-no-aware – translates from Japanese as ‘enjoying the sadness in life’ – the bitter-sweet, vaguely poetic feeling you get, such as when something you’ve savoured comes to an end.

Lauren had had a few brief flings in the past, as well as a couple of longer relationships, but this one would be a treasured memory for a long time.’

Cherry Blossom Footsteps

China insights

When travelling in places with Chinese heritage, I’m always fascinated with the poetry of their place names. In Beijing’s Summer Palace, I’ve been to the ‘Hall of Benevolence and Longevity’, the ‘Garden of Harmonious Pleasures’ and the ‘Hall of Dispelling Clouds’. (For more on my trip to Beijing, read Gail’s 2007 – A game-changer).

In Cherry Blossom Footsteps, Lauren and Alec spend an afternoon in the ‘Diverse green temptations’ of Hong Kong’s wetland park.

Yinyang is one Cantonese term we’re familiar with, and features in Lauren’s travels. Although Yin and Yang are opposites, their strength come from their intrinsic combination in which balance is achieved.

I recently learned one Chinese word that explained a few things. Renao – means ‘Hot’, but also Noisy: making noise, stirring up trouble (in a good way). It implies lively, festive, happy. Chinese have a greater liking for noise than westerners – hence firecrackers, cymbals, etc.

Chinatown renao
Chinese New Year, Melbourne, 2019

These names and terms may reflect some difference between Japanese and Chinese culture. Both have quite different ways of looking at the world than western countries. They often seem to have a greater appreciation of nature and even human nature.

These kinds of terms can certainly have universal application, but I think they also indicate a particular aspect to these ancient and spiritual cultures.

And sometimes not. While Lauren is in Macau, she learns about a mis-translation:

‘You know this street is called Travessa de Paixao, which translates from Portuguese as Passion Street,’ Alec said. ‘It’s meant to refer to the religious Passion – you know, to do with Jesus Christ. But when it was translated into Chinese, they took it to mean romantic passion, so now this here is known to the locals as Lovers’ Lane.’

Better than English . . .

As good as the English language is, there’s often little gems that come from other languages that capture some special concept. Brian Johnston also cites a few others:

  • The Japanese ukiyo which translates as ‘the floating world’, and in its modern usage refers to a state of being: living in the moment, being detached from the bothers of life. We can all do with some of that these days
  • Hygge, the Danish term for cosiness, and the Swedish lagom (just enough-ness) which have been embraced as lifestyle choices outside of those countries. And German feierabend refers to the complete disconnect from work at the end of the day – to experience carefree do-nothing well-being. All fabulous concepts to embrace in times of upheaval.

There’s even more amazing travel words listed in a blog at, Resfeber, Fernweh, and other travel words you’ve never heard before. Swedish term resfeber is the heady tangle of anxiety and excitement that travellers experience before a journey.

And one more, from my own travels . . . Lagniappe is a term I learned on a 2015 trip to New Orleans, meaning an unexpected bonus. I’ve written about that experience in my blog A little something extra.

Cosying up with a copy of Cherry Blossom Footsteps might provide the voorpret and resfeber you need right now.

Cherry Blossom Footsteps