Ha Ram Hwang ’17 is trying to explain a lovely Korean phrase with no good English equivalent: If you type the phrase in Google Translate, you get back “Thank you very much.”

But that falls pitifully short.

“It’s pronounced ‘Jal-boo-tak-deurip-nida,’ and it means, ‘I entrust myself to you,’” says Hwang. “It’s like a greeting, but more. When you are hired for a job, you would tell it to your new boss, and it would be like saying, ‘Please take good care of me.’”

This was one of some 60 words or phrases, from 15 languages, that Amherst students submitted this spring to Hwang and Ju Hyun “Judy” Lee ’18—and that mostly make Google Translate blow a tihendi. (That’s “gasket” in Estonian).

“There are all these snippets of people’s lives that go untranslated,” says Hwang, who, with Lee, gathered such phrases through their culminating project for “English 490: The Multicultural Game.”

“But if you can somehow translate it into English,” adds Lee, “it feels like such a relief!”

Taught by Benigno Sánchez-Eppler, lecturer in English, the eight-student course was about the experience and aesthetic of being multilingual.

To muster up the hard-to-translate snippets, Lee and Hwang spent two days at a table in Keefe Campus Center. The idea was to entice students to stop by and write down a word or phrase from their native language, or a language that held meaning for them. A stack of creamy deckled sheets of paper beckoned, plus a rainbow array of markers.

One student offered up L’esprit de l’escalier, literally “staircase wit,” coined by philosopher Denis Diderot. It means thinking of the perfect comeback too late, since you were speechless at the time and only came up with it when you reached the bottom of the stairs.

Beselot Birhanu ’17 put down the Amharic word tïzïta, a particular mix of memory and nostalgia, “like a longing,” she says.

Other students even contacted their families back home to round up resonant words in Arabic, Japanese, Russian and more. “People not only shared vocabulary with us,” says Hwang, “but emotions, sensations and stories.” 

Multilingual Game Book
Ha Ram Hwang ’17 (left) and Judy Lee ’18 did this multilingual project for an English course. “I was surprised by how many languages are spoken on campus,” says Lee.