A Small Love Dictionary of Untranslatable Japanese Words, Eleni Cay

Eyewear, 2017  £6.00

Living up to a long title

Some long pamphlet titles are all mouth and no trousers, a clever name hiding nothing of substance within. Some are a delicious poem in themselves, and you don’t much mind if they bear no relation to the contents. And some are so temptingly descriptive that you hope against hope the insides will do exactly what it says on the tin.

Happily, A Small Love Dictionary of Untranslatable Japanese Words lives up to its title. It is small (thirty A5 pages), and it is definitely a dictionary. Each word is given in kanji as well as romanised, with a definition and an indication as to part of speech. These definitions themselves are tiny gorgeous poems, and I read the pamphlet once through only looking at these. My favourites:

‘Koi no yokan’ (n.) The feeling on meeting someone that falling in love will be inevitable


‘Shibumi’ (n.) Simple, subtle, unobtrusive and effortless beauty

And yes, it’s a ‘love’ dictionary specifically. I can tell that Eleni Cay loves these words; many of the words themselves concern love; the resulting poems delicately dissect love in all its forms.

As for ‘untranslatable’... Words from other languages with no direct single word equivalent are endlessly appealing to poets. We want to dive in and translate the untranslatable, ie find the universal human truth, even if it takes us many verses. Cay is well placed to walk this line between untranslatable and universal – born in Slovakia and writing in English about Japanese culture. By creating new poems in response to these words, she finds an original way into another language without over-romanticising foreignness.

Rachel Playforth