An English speaking friend asked me what word I was going to explore next.
Gewaarwording. (half smiling)
There’s no such word.
Yes, there is. You just don’t know it, but it’s one of those precious Afrikaans words for which English has no equivalent. I know because I went in search of one.
I was trying to – well, I’m still trying to – find a label for the gewaarwording that filled me when I listened to Margaret Atwood’s reading of her poem, ‘Dearly’, the title poem of a new collection recently published by HarperCollins.
Here are the closest English translations I could glean from the Pharos Dictionaries – which is usually my first stop, and very often the only one I need for translations:
· becoming aware of impressions
Becoming aware of impressions, although partially spot-on, is a four-word concept, which disqualifies it out of hand.
Let’s work with perception for a moment. According to the Lexico, perception is the ability to become aware of something through the senses and then interpret the external stimuli through neurophysiological processes like memory. It’s not necessarily an instant awareness like when you take the first sourish-sweet bite of lemon meringue. Sometimes it takes longer to percolate through, like when you wake up from a deep sleep to the high-pitched zzzzz of mosquito wings.
But gewaarwording is more than that.
There may be a sensation – even a bodily reaction. The cold of a Polish winter morning with clear blue sky and bright sunshine will make you gasp for breath. When I’ve just finished a job the sound of the running water fountain in our back garden always draws a sigh from me, and I feel rid of the tension that’s built up over the days, weeks, or months leading up to the deadline.
Atwood’s reading of her poem had evoked all these words, but it also stirred something in me – an emotion, a feeling – and it is this experience in its entirety for which English has no name. The gewaarwording that embodies all of the above and more.
Writing about the loss of her partner of forty-eight years, Atwood says:
Dearly beloved, gathered here together
in this closed drawer,
I miss the missing, those who left earlier.
I miss even those who are still here.
I miss you all dearly.
*With thanks and acknowledgement to my editor, Arja Salafranca