Is the Dutch word “gezellig” translatable and what’s at stake in the debate?
What is the Dutch “gezellig”? Be careful when you enter a conversation with this topic because you might find yourself across from a quite stubborn Dutch person. This happened to me in the middle of a classroom once in conversation with a Dutch teacher and in front of a classroom of students. The presentations involved issues of cultural diversity, and the Dutch identity came up. It became clear that the Dutch cling to the concept of “gezellig,” and any effort to suggest it is translatable is a personal offense. You can argue that the English translate “gezellig” as “cozy”, but the Dutch claim this doesn’t do the concept of “gezellig” justice. The idea I think is that only a Dutch person can fathom the concept and in the dutch language.
In the well-known book The Dutch, I Presume?: Icons of the Netherlands (Martijn de Rooi, 2005), there is a chapter on “gezelligheid”. Rooi writes, “It is a typically Dutch concept, one that is difficult to translate: gezelligheid. It is a term often used in the Netherlands, as life must be made as gezellig as possible. Gezelligheid is found in a setting that has atmosphere and fun activities, but above all in the right company. Having a bakkie together is by definition “gezellig” (71). A bakkie is like having a cup of coffee with one or more people almost as an excuse for a nice chat. So gezelligheid has to do with togetherness and companionship. “The Dutch like to share their interests and have a well-developed sense of belonging.” Basically the Dutch have made “gezelligheid” part of their brand and they are not going to stand for brand parity or the lowering of value by similar products coming into the market, similar products being in this case words that translate the concept smoothly. Everyone has to have something of their own, their own national treasures. After all, I’m sure Americans wouldn’t want to give up what the Statue of Liberty stands for, or the French, the Eiffel Tower.
My name is Barbara L. Ciccarelli, PhD. I’m a writer and lifelong learner. I am motivated by the stories I hear and share in creating and by the natural rhythms of social life. My goal is to reach across borders of all kinds and form connections. For more of my blogs, go to www.barbaralciccarelli.com. Follow me on Twitter.