Things That Can’t Be Helped
by Kateria Rodriguez

Runestone, volume 5

Things That Can’t Be Helped
by Kateria Rodriguez

Runestone, volume 5

It is rumored that the Japanese language has over 500,000 words in it. Some polyglots and native speakers argue that there are even more. In contrast, the English language only has about 171,000—and most of them will never be used by my own ill-informed native tongue. Yet, in a language founded on constant burrowing, there are words that the flexibility of English cannot begin to reach. I like to think of these untranslatable words as  ”—walls, towers that are far too high for even the most dedicated linguists to scale. Yet, for a curious child with nothing better to do,


it      never   hurt to      try.

On the farmlands of a little home near the Chesapeake, some of these defiant words enveloped. In my routine childhood, an east-facing window next to the front of my bed always invited the sun into my darkened room first. I would be attracted to the light or at least forced to acknowledge its occupancy of my space. Most mornings, I would peer out of the window from my bed, focusing on how the dawn danced across the leaves, the grass, the wheat. It would be years before I knew there was a word for the way the light expanded and exploded across my world—こもれび. It names the way the sun peeks through the trees when it first rises.

My  imagination  played vigorously

with the word, manipulated it with each tiny syllable, and I came to love the passion of the letters, the taste of them. With my knowledge of the word, I began to try to transform the area outside my window at sunrise. Tall, fragile trees would grow before my eyes, replacing the traditional wheat and soybean plots. A small stream would flow through the plots and, occasionally, a crane would fly overhead.

But  it never  seemed to work.

So, resigned, I would force my façade away, get up from the window, and hurriedly prepare for school.

I would  try to climb  again in the evenings.


By age thirteen, I would find myself in Washington, D.C., marching down the middle of its normally gridlocked streets. But instead, I was there with thousands of other people and performers, singing in unison to “Lean on Me” for the 100th Anniversary of the Cherry Blossom Festival. It apparently happened every year right under my nose, and I hadn’t a clue about the squadron of trees that Japan had gifted my nation’s capital. And despite having painfully swollen feet and a sore throat from constant belting, I was able to recall the pastel pink that engulfed D.C., as well as the sight of the flowers and its sweet smell. As I turned a corner, I noticed a banner. It showed the flowers again, but under them fostered a big, bold word—Sakura. Cherry blossom, my mind proposed. The word felt pink to me, and with a translation, it felt more meaningful, more effective in its original form. さくら. Sakura. I imagined the trees of my hometown—large evergreens and pines—covered in the airy flowers that slowly floated down to be reclaimed by the Earth.

My fantasy was beautiful,

but it wasn’t good enough.

And my attention was soon forced elsewhere as I was lightly elbowed by my classmate and made to sing “Lean on Me” once more with the same practiced enthusiasm.


I  never  stopped  climbing though.  

New words were commonly added to my arsenal of language. Many were handed to me by the media or by my own readingsマンガアニメオタク— while the rest were discoveries in their own right. For example, I would look up a list of untranslatable words after a day of school, or maybe I’d watch anime and hear a character say something I didn’t quite understand. Then, in my fervor, I’d look up the word to see if it existed in my own native tongue. More times than not, it did.

Sometimes,  I got lucky.

One day, when I was testing my luck in my high school library, a girl walked up to me and asked what I was doing. Making small talk but never stopping to look away from the screen, I told her about untranslatable words in Japanese. There was a simple moment of silence before she quietly asked, “Why do you care about that? This is America, and you’re black.”

The keys stopped clicking, and my attention shifted entirely to her. I tried to fathom her question. I tried to think of a response. But nothing was translatable at that moment. Like the words on my screen, like the sunrise in the window, like the world I created and adored,

my   feelings   were untranslatable.

It stung a little, having my non-native tongue fail, even as my brain processed responses in said language.

I care because the world looks different when it’s expressed through different words.

I care because this language doesn’t question my complexion, my origins, or my intentions daily.

私はI care because—

But I quietly cut off my mind, just for a moment, and recalled the circumstances I abide by. Translating my pain to passiveness, I laughed carefully and replied,

“I don’t know. It’s just a hobby of mine.”
I  felt  the wall  crumble a bit.   

Or maybe it was just me.


Of the words on the screen following the encounter, two of them stuck out to me. The first one was
しょ. Roughly put, it translates to

it  cannot  be helped.

Of course, this word isn’t discouraging or saddening, but rather an indifferent point. You shrug your shoulders when you say this. But for some reason, I wasn’t shrugging.

The second word was金繕い, or the Japanese practice of breaking pottery only to put it back together again with silver or gold. This apparently made the items more valuable. I stared at this word for a while in wonder.

People would break things to make them more beautiful,
rarer. I wondered which part was more enjoyable for them:

the art of  


また breaking or

the art of

固定  fixing  

broken things. I looked around again at the library, noting the common items. Everything was where it was supposed to be. The books on the shelves; the motivational posters on the wall. Even the same librarian, shuffling through her paperwork. Everything. A beautiful, suffocating, romantic normalcy.

I must be broken.     Some things must be broken.    

It gives them a new meaning. A new purpose. A new life.
The bell rang, and I logged off the computer.



I gathered my shards into my jacket pocket, put on some headphones, and headed to my next class.

After that, I never did get back to climbing.


But at least it was a clean     break.


Kateria Rodriguez

Salisbury University

Kateria Rodriguez is currently a senior at Salisbury University where she majors in history with a minor in English. When she is not making poetry, she is learning Mandarin, attempting yoga, and looking for new historical voices to incorporate into her prose. She is deeply inspired by the works of Yusef Komunyakaa and Patrick Rosal, and hopes to be that loud one day.

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