What Makes a Word Untranslatable?

Duncan Hull/Flickr

Duncan Hull/Flickr

What makes a word impossible to translate? Is it simply that the word doesn't exist in English or is the meaning so subtle that the definition lies somewhere amongst a group of similar English words?

When does the meaning of a word become lost in translation? The differing structures and cultural origins of the various languages of the world can often create some real confusion.  Some words seem to be impossible to communicate. It's a strange, even romantic, thought that a word could not be translated – it implies that there may be some concepts only accessible to speakers of one particular language. Yet despite cultural and linguistic differences, it is interesting that there exists at least a rough equivalent in other languages for most words. Some words – when translated into English – become a series of hyphenated words or a complex sentence. Agglutinative languages often feature complex words that are comprised of a long line of morphemes. Inuit languages, Turkish, Japanese, Malay and others feature a substantial number of these complex words. Here is a list of 20 so-called untranslatable words:

1. Çekoslovakyalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmışçasına

This is a Turkish word that is really more of an expression. Its meaning? Something along the lines of “you are one of those whom we could make resemble the Czechoslovakian people.” Several words have confusing literal translations that won't help much in trying to understand their meanings.

2. Ya’aburnee

Ya’aburnee is an Arabic word which, when literally translated, is likely to leave you confused. The literal meaning is “you bury me” but it is meant to convey the feeling of wanting to die before another person because the alternative, continuing to live after the death of that person, is too painful to bear.

3. Torschlusspanik

This is another word that results in a potentially confusing literal translation. This German word translates as “gate-closing panic” but is meant to express the decrease in opportunities that comes with getting older. Many so-called untranslatable words are very particular feelings that come from incredibly specific situations.

4. Saudade

An extremely common word in Brazilian Portuguese conversation, saudade refers to a profoundly nostalgic or melancholic longing for something or someone beloved that may never return.

5. Akimbo

This means to have your hands on your hips with your elbows bent outwards or generally be in a bent position. In the 14th and 15th century, this odd word was “kenebowe” in Middle English.

6. Arlésienne

Arlésienne, a French word, refers to people who are the root causes of a problem or around whom a situation or conversation occurs, yet who are not actually present and remain unseen and unheard.

7. Gigil

In Tagalog, gigil means the urge to squeeze or pinch something that is unbearably cute.

8. Schadenfreude

Schadenfreude means to take pleasure from another person’s misery. It's a German word.

9. Won

Won is Korean and roughly means to be reluctant to see things as they are instead giving preference to illusions and falsities.

10. Mamihlapinatapei

Mamihlapinatapei is word from Yagán, a language from Tierra del Fuego in South America. It occurs an awful lot in films and television and is a 'meaningful look shared between two people who wish to initiate something romantic but are reluctant to start'.

11. Iktsuarpok

Iktsuarpok is Inuit and refers to a specific type of frustration most of us feel on a regular basis – the frustration of waiting for someone to turn up.

12. Prozvonit

Prozvonit is a relatively new word. It is Czech and means to call a mobile phone and deliberately let it only ring once in the hope that no one will pick up and call back, thus saving the first caller money.

13 Bakku-shan

This is a rather charming Japanese word. It is a girl who looks pretty from behind but not so much from the front.

14. Gökotta

This word is Swedish and means "to deliberately wake up early in the morning so you can listen to the first birds sing."

15. Komorebi

Komorebi refers to the scattering of light in woods where the sunlight shines through the gaps between the branches and vines. It is Japanese.

16. Fernweh

Fernweh is German and roughly translates as being homesick – that is, for a place you are yet to visit.

17. Cafuné

Cafuné is used in Brazil to express the act of the running of fingers through someone’s hair.

18. Nekama

This Japanese word refers to a man who pretends to be a woman on the internet.

19. Jayus

Jayus is Indonesian and means a joke that is so terribly unfunny that it is funny.

20. Tartle

This word is Scottish and refers to that moment of hesitation that occurs when you are introducing someone and you can’t quite remember their name.

So Why Are they So Difficult?

Languages constantly evolve and bring us new delights, but there are always patchy areas when it comes to translating. The German linguist Jost Trier introduced the idea of lexical fields, where words acquired their meaning through their relationships to neighbouring words with similar meanings. If we think of words as being branches on a tree or parts of a mosaic, we can see how "satisfied" might sit next to "content", "content" might be a neighbour to "happy" and "happy" end up somewhere near "elated." Each of these words has a variety of connotations that can mutate over time with use in everyday conversation. The constantly shifting definitions of words provide many opportunities for them to become “untranslatable." Want to learn a new language and open yourself up a whole new world of untranslatable words, emotions, and ideas? Contact us to find out where to start.