Over the years, in my fascination with language, I've noticed that nearly every language in the world contains at least one, and sometimes several, words that supposedly defy translation from their language of origin. Quite often, these words are related to the national self-image of the nation from which they derive. I offer below a few examples - feel free to /msg me with suggestions for more.


I've received quite a lot of feedback on this writeup, including some very good suggestions:

Thanks for the suggestions, all of you.

One issue that deserves to be adressed in this context, however, was raised in achtung_man's well-written and interesting writeup, below, on the Fuegia word mamihlapinatapai. I hesitate to say this, but I really think achtung_man has misunderstood me.

This node is about words that are supposed to be untranslatable. As achtung_man makes quite clear, mamihlapinatapai is translatable - very easily so. The fact that it requires multiple words to translate doesn't mean anything - otherwise, Kuinnginngeeq would deserve to be listed here, too.

The point of listing saudade, hygge and Weltschmerz is that people who speak, respectively, Portuguese, Danish and German will usually claim that you cannot translate them completely. In any other language, you can supposedly only hint at the full meaning of these words.

My opinion, as should be obvious from the above, is that there is no such animal as an untranslatable word.

Well, I thought about writing about Swedish words "lagom" and "fika", but after much (well, a few minutes at least) consideration I decided that they weren't much harder to translate than liveforever's different words...

...however, after reading his node I started to remember something I'd read a few weeks ago about a word that was, supposedly, _the_ hardest word to translate in the entire world (Wait! Don't downvote just yet!).

It's in fuegia, a language spoken in southern Argentina and in Chile. The word is Mamihlapinatapai (verb), which means "looking at each other, hoping that the other person will offer to do a task both knows has to be done eventually by someone but neither wants to do".

I think I should win the stuffed bunny.


Update: Yeah, I misunderstood you, liveforever. Ah well, I'll leave the writeup here anyway, since I believe all words really are translatable, anyway - at the very least to one other language. Therefore mamihlapinatapai isn't THAT out of place. :)

Okay, I'm bilingual (Dutch-English, to the point where I don't know which was my first language, although my English is much more well-exercised and my Dutch is probably vaguely old-fashioned because I primarily exercise it with my elders) and I'll bite.

One of the untranslatable words in liveforever's first writeup in this node, the Danish hygge, has a Dutch equivalent, which I've always found extremely difficult (though not impossible) to translate into English: the adjective gezellig. Its noun form is gezelligheid, and it basically means "a pleasant, comfortable, happy, friendly time spent in good company." That's a mouthful, and so I prefer to say "gezellig" or "gezelligheid" if at all possible, but as liveforever points out, that doesn't make it untranslatable. However, my preference for the Dutch word is very strong: once, when spending three weeks in France with a friend, the first three days of which were spent in the company of his grandparents, who spoke only French and Arabic, I was asked what I would, in English, call the kind of happy, social, congenial companionability I was eventually able to find with these friendly senior citizens and their friends. (They had a French word for it, but I can't remember it now.) I replied that it was difficult to express in English, but that the Dutch word "gezellig" was just about perfect.

But that's enough anecdote for one writeup. The following are other Dutch words that don't translate well, which is not to say they don't; it just means I wish English had them, and so they make me prone to borrowing.

  • lekker This is a great word. It's an adjective that means everything from "tasty" to "sexy" to "feeling good, comfortable, relaxed, happy, and healthy." (October 23, 2001: I am happy to report that according to StrawberryFrog, "lekker" has been incorporated into English in South Africa. Hurray for loanwords and borrowing!)

  • leuk Similar to "lekker" in that it's a simple word for a complicated set of positives. "Leuk" means something around the intersection of "nice", "fun", and "cute" (by which I mean all the English shades of cute, from "sexually attractive" to "friendly" to "small, deformed version of something that might otherwise be termed beautiful" (see Tem42's writeup under cute for a better explication of this meaning).

Finally, I'd like to point out that if there's one class of words that's hard to translate, it's prepositions (or postpositions, depending on the language). You know what I mean. Words used to describe relative position or configuration of objects. U.C. Berkeley linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff says this is because all position words (or phrases, in many languages) are a combination of certain basic underlying units of meaning called semantic primes, and don't translate exactly unless words match up prime for prime (more coherent writeup to follow under semantic prime once I've gotten a chance to look at my Lakoff notes a bit). He'd probably explain words like lekker and leuk, or any of the other "untranslatables" mentioned above, as difficult to translate because they seem like fundamental units of meaning in one language when really they're a specific combination of fundamental meanings that doesn't appear in another language.

One word I have always heard cited among the canonical examples in this category is the French word coup, which has eventually found its way into English. I believe the literal translation is "strike", but of course its usage encompasses a great deal more. Something like "well-executed maneuver", or "sudden tactical victory" comes close, but the one-word version is so much snappier. Then of course there is the phrase coup d'etat, which has itself been borrowed wholesale to refer to the overthrowing of governments.

I think it says a lot that we English-speakers, who already have at our disposal one of the most enormous vocabularies of any language on Earth, have simply ripped off this one from the French, rather than bother to invent our own equivalent.

One word that I think is pretty untranslatable is the German word doch. It can mean many things in many different instances.

Sometimes it means "but" or "yet".
Ex: Ich liebe dich, doch du liebst mich nicht. (I love you, but you don't love me.)

When used by itself, it means something like "Yes I did!" or "What you just said is wrong, in fact, the opposite is true!"
For example: Mother: Jutta, du hast die Gemüse nicht gegessen! Daughter: Doch! (Mother: Jutta, you haven't eaten your vegetables! Daughter: I did so!)

The usage that I find rather untranslatable is when doch is used to strengthen the tone of a sentence. It can be used to create a sense of urgency, or sense of severity. For example, Ich habe es nicht gesehen, would mean "I didn't see it", but Ich habe es doch nicht gesehen would mean "I didn't see it!" with a sense of exasperation or surprise. I can't think of any words in English that function in the same way except for profanities, which don't exactly jive, since there's nothing profane about saying doch at all.

The Ancient GreekLogos” (λογος) really is untranslatable. In some contexts, the meaning is fairly straightforward, as in mathematics when it means a “ratio” between two quantities. It can, however, mean much more, particular in philosophy and religion. At the beginning of the Gospel of John, logos is used in its pure, unadulerated, Gnostic mystic glory: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”(where Word =logos)

In Goethe’s play, Faust, there is a scene where the learned Doctor Faust is seen in his study attempting to translate the Gospel of John, but is unsatisfied with the traditional translation ...

Goethe, Faust, Faust Study

'Tis written: "In the beginning was the Word!"
Here now I'm balked! Who'll put me in accord?
It is impossible, the Word so high to prize,
I must translate it otherwise
If I am rightly by the Spirit taught.
'Tis written: In the beginning was the Thought!
Consider well that line, the first you see,
That your pen may not write too hastily!
Is it then Thought that works, creative, hour by hour?
Thus should it stand: In the beginning was the Power!
Yet even while I write this word, I falter,
For something warns me, this too I shall alter.
The Spirit's helping me! I see now what I need
And write assured: In the beginning was the Deed!

Goethe, Faust, Studierzimmer

Geschrieben steht: Im Anfang war das Wort!
Hier stock ich schon! Wer hilft mir weiter fort?
Ich kann das Wort so hoch unmoeglich schaetzen,
Ich muss es anders uebersetzen,
Wenn ich vom Geiste recht erleuchtet bin.
Geschrieben steht: Im Anfang war der Sinn.
Bedenke wohl die erste Zeile,
Dass deine Feder sich nicht uebereile!
Ist es der Sinn, der alles wirkt und schafft?
Es sollte stehn: Im Anfang war die Kraft!
Doch, auch indem ich dieses niederschreibe,
Schon warnt mich was, dass ich dabei nicht bleibe.
Mir hilft der Geist! Auf einmal seh ich Rat
Und schreibe getrost: Im Anfang war die Tat!

There are at least two books on this subject: They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words & Phrases by Howard Rheingold, first published in 1988; and The Meaning of Tingo…and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World by Adam Jacot de Boinod, published in 2005. Notwithstanding the subtitles, the latter is actually more lighthearted than Rheingold’s book, which goes into more depth in terms of the nuance and context for each word, as well as aiming to add to the reader's working vocabulary. Both, however, make excellent lavatorial reading material.

As other noders have pointed out, it is possible to translate supposedly ‘untranslatable’ words, or to convey the meaning of such a word using multiple words. However, there is a world of difference between, say, ‘Drachenfutter’, a German compound-noun which translates literally as ‘dragon fodder’ and which describes a peace offering for a woman from a guilty man (e.g. a bunch of flowers), a meaning immediately graspable by most Westerners, and a word such as ‘aware’ (pron. ah-WAH-ray), Japanese for ‘the feelings engendered by ephemeral beauty’,* which may arguably require an enhanced understanding of Japanese culture in order to fully appreciate its native and original meaning, albeit one may easily gather a functional approximization in Western terms.

Rheingold’s introduction touches briefly upon the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and words for colour, and it is this aspect – the idea that language may influence culture and thought patterns or vice versa, a theory supported (in either direction) by the subtle personality changes one undergoes when speaking a non-mother tongue - which makes supposedly untranslatable words interesting as players in this ongoing chicken and egg-style debate.


* Rheingold, H., They Have a Word for It, Sarabande Books, USA, 2000, p99


There are several such words in Cantonese that for a long time, my friends and I could not satisfactorily translate into English.

無聊(mo liu) - this partially means 'inane', but the English word doesn't give the full meaning.

無奈(mo noi) - best expressed by -_- or perhaps ^_^;. The usual English term 'to sweat-drop' is gacked from Japanese anime where characters do this when they are mo noi, usually accompanied by a blue/black cloud around their head plus a drop of sweat/several straight lines.

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