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  • NYS Writers Institute

Untranslatable Words: On the deep connection between words and cultures

A new video series to enhance understanding of the mosaic of U.S. culture

The idea for “Untranslatable Words” began in spring of 2021, when NYS Writers Institute graduate assistant Kaori Otera Chen and UAlbany English Professor Ineke Murakami served on UAlbany’s Racial Justice Committee through the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

The three untranslatable words discussed in the video:

kuuki wo yomu: reading the air

gaman: to endure or persevere with dignity

wabi sabi: beauty in imperfection

The English meanings shown above don't approach the depth of their true meanings, which are much better explained in the video narrated by Kaori and Ineke.

About this video project

Kaori Otera Chen, with NYS Writers Institute Director Paul Grondahl
Kaori Otera Chen with NYS Writers Institute Director Paul Grondahl

In the spring of 2021, alarmed by the upswing in anti-Asian violence across the country, UAlbany’s Racial Justice Committee identified one of the key causes as “invisibility” rooted in the stigma of perpetual foreignness that makes even Asian Americans with generations of family in the U.S. seem to some as if they are “really” from elsewhere, irrelevant to current or historical considerations.

Ineke Murakami, Professor of English
Ineke Murakami

The RJC developed several projects to raise visibility, highlighting our work as researchers, educators, students, and creators in the

UAlbany community, members who happen to be ethnically Asian, Asian American or Pacific Islander (AAPI). Kaori and Ineke wondered, however, if there wasn’t also a way to suggest how AAPI heritage itself contributed to, and continues to enhance, the mosaic of U.S. culture.

We met to brainstorm. How might we enhance visibility without flattening the great diversity of cultures that make up AAPI? Studies have shown representation and education are powerful tools for combating bias and hate, but most people have limited time to explore new cultures.

The answer, we decided, lay in idioms: those little, throwaway phrases so culturally specific and steeped in history.

We considered a number of idioms, discussed how they worked (or didn’t) in our families, and settled on a few we considered “very Japanese,” including some that can cause confusion in friends who don’t share our background.

By focusing on three phrases -- kuuki wo yomu -- gaman -- wabi sabi -- that work like a bridge -- connecting Kaori’s national culture (Japan) to Ineke’s (the U.S.), we found we were able to touch quickly on differences as well as give voice to a general Japanese perspective beyond mass media depictions. We both learned a lot in the process! Reflecting upon the deep connections between words and cultures can help us respect differences of other people.

Ideally, this video is a prototype for a larger “Untranslatable Words” series that will provide viewers with brief, accessible insight into other AAPI cultures through idiomatic phrases in, say, Tagalog, Cantonese, Korean, Hindi, or Vietnamese. We hope to convey a sense of how AAPI concepts and people, whether multigenerational citizens or student Visa holders, add strength and ingenuity to our U.S. communities, and in doing so, encourage a greater respect for differences and a more empathetic society.

Arigatou Gozaimasu

Thank you!


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