Awesomely Untranslatable Words

Do you find yourself thinking in English very often? Have you ever said “I can express this better in French”? Have your friends ever looked down on you when you use a foreign word instead of your own language and you simply defend yourself “I cannot find the  of it”? I experience them all sometimes. I do not say that’s the way it should be. I am always a strong defender of protecting the integrity and the pureness of languages. However, when you know more than one language, you cannot help but use foreign words because you know you can express yourself better. In translation, such situations are more obvious. Sometimes you translate one English word as a whole sentence in your native language or vice-versa. It is not about the “richness” of a language but the culture and the history.   explains 20 untranslatable words from all over the world. Here, I paste the ones that I find interesting. You can always click on the link at the bottom for the rest. 


Yagan (indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego) – “the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start”


Indonesian – “A joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh”


Japanese – “A mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement”


Scottish – The act of hestitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name.


Tshiluba (Southwest Congo) – A word famous for its untranslatability, most professional translators pinpoint it as the stature of a person “who is ready to forgive and forget any first abuse, tolerate it the second time, but never forgive nor tolerate on the third offense.”


German – Quite famous for its meaning that somehow other languages neglected to recognize, this refers to the feeling of pleasure derived by seeing another’s misfortune. I guess “America’s Funniest Moments of Schadenfreude” just didn’t have the same ring to it.


Japanese – Much has been written on this Japanese concept, but in a sentence, one might be able to understand it as “a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay.”


Portuguese – One of the most beautiful of all words, translatable or not, this word “refers to the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost.” Fado music, a type of mournful singing, relates to saudade.


The author adds a very beautiful final comment: “Understanding these words should be like eating the best slab of smoked barbequeued ribs: the enjoyment doesn’t come from knowing what the cook put in the sauce or the seasoning, but from the full experience that can only be created by time and emotion”

For the rest of the article, click here.

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15 responses to this post.

  1. I just wan to say that for example Kyoiku-mama (教育ママ) can be easily translated into English as “education-mama”.

    Just about anything can be translated from any language to any language, although you may need more that one or two words for the translation.

    Which is not to say that the translation will be understood in the same way as the original concept in a different language and a different culture.


    • Thank you for the contribution but it is sometimes hard to find word-to-word equivalents. Such “hard” words just require extra time to translate.


    • Posted by Inga on February 28, 2012 at 11:54

      But this is what translation is all about – not translating just words, but the meaning, the “feel” and the “taste” of the language, so that the reader can see the same colours and shades that the reader of the original text does.


  2. Definitely true. I find myself switching from english to spanish all the time. It’s not because words don’t come to mind, but because I feel like I’m getting my point across in a much better way in one language over the other.

    Tartle is a new one for me. I’ve always loved the word saudade. Hello from Ecuador. 🙂


  3. Saudade is nostalgia, isn’t it?


  4. Like the cultures that they are based on, languages are NOT mirror images of one another and the thought patterns are often dissimilar. Untranslatable words or even whole expressions are therefore inevitable from time to time. Capable translators merely manage to minimise the gap in the most natural sounding way possible. Nonetheless, because of the essentiallly similar nature of all human beings at basic level many interface areas of good equivalence between languages DO exist; otherwise no translation would be possible at all.


  5. I particularly enjoy every-day English words that can’t be easily translated into my own language: successful, business-minded, self-employed, and a lot of useful business expressions. Definitely the influence of culture!


  6. Posted by stephanie on February 29, 2012 at 21:41

    When I lived in Spain there was a group of us who would eat together every Friday night. At our table, English, Spanish, French, German, Basque and Arabic were present – and most of us spoke three or more of the above fluently. It was fabulous! We could use whatever word fit most appropriately, and nobody thought twice.


    • Posted by Emerald on April 2, 2012 at 21:17

      Stephanie, I recognize that so, as I have been in situations like that. And when something is said that some in the group do not understand, there are always several translators at the table. 😉 .. Now I want to go to Spain. ;-D


  7. Posted by Manuel on March 1, 2012 at 20:17

    Reading your blog entry brought back memories of reading After Babel by George Steiner.


  8. Posted by Sou on March 2, 2012 at 10:38

    Im glad to see that Im not the only one who has this problem. I hate especially the look on my friends faces as if they were saying “what the hell did she said” :)))), though its funny :DD


  9. Posted by Boel Myriam on March 6, 2012 at 17:15

    Great article, and yes, I learned a few new words. Shame one’s life is never long enough to learn all the languages one would like to talk and write.! Thanks for sharing!


  10. Posted by adriandavidarif on October 31, 2012 at 23:40

    “Jayus” is not a formal word in Bahasa Indonesia. It’s a slang, and for the past 4 years, the 4L4y (read ar-lie) dialect is still considered a slang. So, how do you translate “Yip-pee-kay-yay”?


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