Emotions, in 3 Languages

I’ve always found it curious how differently languages define emotions. Emotions, generally speaking, are universal – yet so many multilingual speakers would tell you that some are near impossible to translate.

Throughout my years of studying foreign languages, I have come across a lot of words that I find difficult to translate – at least in a concise manner. They range from abstract concepts to concrete objects, but none fascinates me like those pertaining to human emotions.

I’m not talking about culturally unique emotions – I’m talking about universal ones that exist across cultures, such as guilt, happiness, and sympathy; and the similar, yet subtly different interpretations of these same emotions in varying linguistic and cultural contexts.

Mandarin Chinese

I still remember how shocked I was when I first learned the fact that both ‘快乐’ and ‘幸福’ can be, and often are, translated to the same word in English – happiness. I’d thought, ‘How could that be the case, given that they’re two completely different things?’ Granted, they’re both types of happiness, but they are different types of happiness, and for the 14-year-old me, the distinction was very important. Even at that age, ‘幸福’ was such an important emotion to me that I could scarcely imagine not having a proper name for it.

You can explain ‘幸福’ in a sentence or two, but there is no real English equivalent for it. It’s a deep, profound sense of happiness – sometimes it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, other times it fills you with a sense of peace and you feel as if you can die that instant and not regret a thing. On some days it can be found in the most trivial of things, like a bowl of warm soup, or hearing an old song you love in a quiet café that you’ve stumbled upon by accident; on others it feels impossible to attain, and the notion of never finding it fills you with such despair you begin to question your own existence.

Many think of a lover’s embrace when they hear this word, because it is often used in a romantic context. “追求自己的幸福”, for example, is a line you’d see often in romance novels and movies, and can be roughly translated to ‘chasing after one’s own love’ – and not just any love, but one that will bring true, lasting happiness.

There’s also 心疼, which literally translates to ‘heart aching’. It describes the feeling of distress one experiences when one sees a loved one, or someone weaker (like a helpless baby or an elderly struggling in a difficult situation) suffering. It is not exactly sympathy – it evokes not only pain, but also an urge to protect or intervene. It doesn’t have to be some terrible misfortune, either, especially in the case of a loved one. A mother could look at her son staying up late to study for his upcoming exams and feel ‘心疼’. It’s when someone is so precious to you, you can’t bear to see them in any sort of pain, sadness or discomfort.

You might also look at a young child working after school (which is illegal in most places) and think, “But he’s so young! He should be out there, playing with other children, enjoying his childhood, yet…” That compassion you feel is also 心疼 – many would translate this to ‘it breaks my heart to see…’, which I think, in this context, is a pretty appropriate translation.

English

I’ve always found it difficult to translate ‘frustrated’ into Mandarin Chinese, so much that I just give up and switch to English when I’m speaking with bilingual friends. I’d say, “我真的很。。。frustrated,你知道吗?” instead of trying to find an equivalent in Mandarin Chinese. It’s often translated to ‘挫败’, which in my opinion is far too grim and much closer in meaning to ‘defeated’, which conveys a sense of loss and failure. ‘Frustrated’ hints at obstruction – something is impeding progress, causing anger and annoyance. It’s somewhat temporary, whereas ‘defeated’ feels a lot more final, as if you’ve given up. There’s also ‘恼火’, but that’s more angry than annoyed (perfect for when you’re super frustrated AND pissed, but a bit too much for when you’re just mildly frustrated) so it wouldn’t necessarily work in all situations.

There’s also ‘exasperated’, which is often translated to ‘被激怒’, meaning ‘provoked to anger’. While that might work in some situations, I feel like it’s a bit too oversimplified. With ‘exasperated’, there’s a sense of ‘helplessness’ – there’s nothing you can do to change the situation, you’re running out of patience and at your wits’ end, you’re so annoyed and angry that you don’t know whether to scream or laugh or cry. It’s a mix of ‘恼火’ and ‘无奈’, and in a way a more extreme version of ‘frustrated’.

And then there’s ‘I’m sorry’ – not the apologetic kind, but the sympathetic kind. I suppose you can say “我替你感到难过” (I feel sad for you), but it can come off as quite awkward in most situations that you’re probably better off not saying anything. It is, I feel, best translated to a gentle, sympathetic shoulder rub, or a pat on the arm. If you’re close to the person, that is.

Korean

I still find myself surprised by the flexibility of certain words in Korean. The word ‘섭섭하다’ for example, can mean many things – it can be used to describe that feeling of sadness and reluctance when you have to part with someone or something you love; the feeling of hurt and disappointment when things or people fail to live up to your expectations; or the feeling of bitterness towards a decision you have come to regret. We have different words in Mandarin Chinese and English for each of those emotions, yet in Korean they are the same thing. How is that possible?

I remember being baffled when I first learned the meanings of this word. In my head, those emotions were vastly different things and there was no way they could be adequately summed up in one single word. But as I got used to this word, I began to change my mind.

All those emotions, at their core, are the same – a bitter, hollow sort of feeling that takes over when one fails to reconcile expectations and reality. The only thing that differs is the cause of the feeling – the departure of a loved one, cruel words from someone you thought should know better… When reality is disappointing, yet you have no choice but to accept it.

The fact that the Korean language chooses to describe the nature of the emotion itself rather than the causes of it is something I’ll always find fascinating. There’s also 서운하다, which is fairly similar to 섭섭하다 in terms of meaning, but feels somewhat different – it’s  softer, with a sort of tenderness to it, the sadness fresh and flowing, like water. 섭섭하다, on the other hand, is harder, more bitter, and the sadness is laced with resentment.  The difference highlights once again how the Korean language puts its focus on defining how an emotion makes one feel, as opposed to what makes one feel the way they feel.


I don’t think language determines or limits what we can or cannot feel. What it does, in my opinion, is provide us the means to define them. By doing so, we transform them from nebulous thoughts and feelings into concrete concepts. And because every language does it a little differently, the same emotions can manifest in slightly different forms depending on the language they are described in. While the core meaning remains the same, there may be small yet significant differences, like cultural connotations, that make each interpretation unique in its own way.

Learning multiple languages allows us to view the same emotions through different perspectives, and sometimes in doing so we may uncover ones we didn’t know we had. Sometimes we don’t notice the existence of something until we discover the means to articulate them. It’s a wonderful feeling, and I think this is what people mean when they say language learning can be life-enriching. In more ways than one, it’s about looking at things through a different lens, discovering new ways to interact with the world around us, and learning new things about ourselves.