Untranslatable Words: Sisu

March 19, 2010 / Culture / 49 Comments

I love finding foreign words that can’t be translated into English. These little gems allow me to experience another culture as a local because the only way to understand these words is to put yourself in their shoes.

Untranslatable Finnish Word: Sisu

During one of my Top Gear marathons, I stumbled upon an interview with Finnish racing driver Mika Häkkinen. He talks about an interesting Finnish trait: sisu. It roughly translates to courage to persevere in English. However, unlike courage, it doesn’t have the activeness or the aggressiveness attached to its meaning.

Imagine failing your math exam but you don’t throw a hissy fit, curse your teacher or blame your dog. Instead, you gracefully accept your failure and work harder for your next test. That courage to accept your failure and that silent yet strong determination to overcome your weakness is what the Finnish call sisu.

Ethnographers claim that sisu arose from Finland’s history. Georgraphically, they are sandwiched by bigger, stronger neighbors that served as constant political, military, cultural and even linguistical threats to the Finnish. (Finland is the only Scandinavian country with a language that does not have Germanic roots). I can’t think of a better way than sisu to cope with these adversities.

But enough about sisu from me. I’m not Finnish, I’ve never been to Finland and I have more fingers than I have Finnish friends. So here’s the clip from Top Gear where Häkkinen talks about sisu. (It’s a 10 minute clip. I recommend watching the entire clip since it’s hilarious to watch Captain Slow learn to rally race. But if you don’t love Top Gear like I do, just jump right into the sisu bit at 4:35.)

If you’d like to know more about sisu, read The Finnish Line by the Washington Post.

English has untranslatable words too!

On a side note, we have words in English that are untranslatable to other languages too. One favorite example is the word nice. It has so many meanings. It could be a synonym to good, it could also mean politeness as in “a nice gesture”; it could even be some sort of intensifier as in “a nice and warm cup of tea”!

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s profound cultural significance in its untranslatability. Perhaps, we anglophones try so hard to avoid offending others that we came up with a word to describe boring people in a good way.

Just kidding. 😛