Today on BuzzFeed, New Zealand-based artist Anjana Iyer’s clever illustrations of words without direct English translations are featured, and they are nothing if not delightful. The German Waldeinsamkeit, for example, is “the feeling of being alone in the woods,” while the Pascuense word Tingo is “to gradually steal all the possessions out of a neighbour’s house by borrowing and not returning.” If nothing else, click though for her depiction of the Yiddish schlemazel.
In the spirit of Iyer’s project, allow us to submit our own nomination for the best word without a direct English counterpart. Literally the best because it’s quite possibly the nicest, most selfless word of all. It’s firgun, a Hebrew word that describes the ungrudging pleasure one takes in someone else’s good fortune.
Tablet contributor Irin Carmon wrote about the word in 2012, which has its roots in both fargin—a Yiddish word whose definition is, naturally, not as optimistic—and the German vergonnen.
The Hebrew noun is firgun; mefargenet and mefargen are adjectives. It describes a generosity of spirit, an unselfish, empathetic joy that something good has happened, or might happen, to another person. A typical use in my family would be passing on a trip itinerary and getting the maternal reply, “Mefargenet lach, motek.” I’ve got such firgun for you, sweetheart—drawing pleasure from a vacation she won’t take.
The illustration accompanying Irin’s piece, seen above, which was drawn by Liana Finck (whose charming new book has been called a “wonderfully illustrated gem”—I’m totally firguning right now, aren’t I?) offers perhaps the most literal rendering of the word firgun we’re going to get. The image depicts an adult happy for a child eating ice cream, someone who is excited about a friend’s medal, and a happy, ungrudging guest at a wedding. See! They’re so happy for each other’s happiness.
It’s an optimistic little word, firgun, and one that might make us all a little cheerier. Imagine, instead of feeling envious or bitter about the successes of others, feeling genuine, no-strings-attached happiness for them? It’s easier said than done, Irin points out: “In practice, that transcendence can be, shall we say, elusive.”
Maybe that’s why there’s no English translation?
Related: Hebrew’s Special Pride
Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.