Earlier this month, I stumbled across the Free Word Centre’s list of untranslatable words. I love these; being multilingual, I know both the thorough satisfaction in finding a word or expression that conveys your precise meaning, and the frustration in trying to get people who don’t speak that particular language to understand what you’re trying to say. Often, this is not a huge problem with languages such as English, French or German, Italian, or, increasingly, Spanish: certain concepts and phrases from these will generally be familiar to speakers of other languages. It becomes more difficult, however, when the language you’re referring to is an obscurer one, such as Dutch.
Free Word gives the fairly standard, ‘typically Dutch’ phrase, ‘uitwaaien’, which it translates as, ‘literally “‘to walk in the wind”: to take a brief break outside to clear one’s head’. The same word made an appearance in Balderdash and Piffle a number of years ago, where the idea of ‘going for a walk in windy weather – for fun’ was deemed completely baffling. Some Dutch untranslatables are fairly well known, such as ‘gezellig’: the combination of a pleasant atmosphere and good company for which ‘cosy’ could be deemed an adequate translation, were it not for the fact that it applies equally to drinking cocoa around a log fire and having a beer with your friends on a summer café terrace. My problems tend to arise from lesser-known words such as ‘binnenpretje’, a funny thought or memory that makes you smile but that you can’t explain when people ask why you’re smiling; ‘lief’, which is kind and sweet and cute and considerate all rolled into one, ‘flierefluiten’, ‘oproer kraaien’ and all the subversive activities Loesje so avidly recommends.
Since virtually all of my political activity takes place in the UK and in English, however, the word/concept/sentiment I most regret not having a translation for is that unbeatable Second-Wave descriptor, ‘vrijgevochten’. Literally ‘fought free’, it arose in the sixties and seventies on the crest of the new feminist movement in the context of a new generation breaking with the meaningless and restrictive norms of the war- and depression-torn earlier half of the twentieth century. It is linked to such other highly evocative phrases as ‘baas in eigen buik’ (‘boss in one’s own belly’ – the pro-choice movement to make abortion freely available and release it from its social taboos) and to the notion that the personal is political; and it is still used for (particularly) women who wage a private battle against repressive etiquettes and norms in all areas of life. For example, women who are so free from body shame that they feel able to try on a pair of jeans in the middle of a shop, without bothering with anything so 1950s bourgeois as a fitting room. Yes, for the sort of unshaven, bra-burning, sixties feminist we would so like to see again.
It struck me that the nearest approach to this concept in British/English-language culture may well be from an entirely different era. On the eve of the First Wave, in the degenerating cities overflowing with ‘surplus women’, the New Women rode their bicycles to early feminist meetings, wearing bloomers and smoking cigarettes. Punch readers and other socially and politically conservative patriarchs called them the ‘wild women’, in outward disparagement, but with an unmistakable hint of fear. ‘Vrijgevochten’ has the same disparaging connotations, and was also re-appropriated in the same way by the women to whom it referred, and worn as a badge of honour. It became, in fact, to use another very apt Dutch word, a ‘Geuzennaam’: an intended insult taken back by the person or group to which it refers, and transformed into a proud self-designator.
I confess to considerable nostalgia for the sort of wide-spread, militant feminism of these two eras, and its liberating effects on both individual women and women as a group (despite its obvious white Western middle-class limitations). I think it is time to revive these words as more than historical terms, and perhaps test their unifying effect in modern-day society. Across borders and across cultures, freedom is still to be fought for, and our personal fights can and should still affect the political reality.