The magic of untranslatable words

The magic of untranslatable words

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Have you ever wished – in the middle of a conversation – that there was a word that could describe that one specific concept you have in mind, instead of having to explain it with a full articulate sentence? Yes, we know about that frustrating feeling. But don’t be desperate, because chances are high that that specific word you think of does exist in another language.

Every language develops by itself and creates new words according to the speakers’ needs. It is known that these days a new word is coined every 98 minutes: can you believe it? Every two episodes of the TV show you’re currently watching, or at the end of every football match, a new word is created!!! Mind-blowing, huh?

Now that we have hopefully triggered your interest in words and neologisms, we wanted to talk about a specific topic that fascinates us immensely. That is untranslatable words.

You might wonder what they are, and how on earth it is possible for a word not to have a natural correspondence in any other language. You see, as translators, we constantly seek for the chance to find the most accurate and effective way to translate one term, concept or sentence from one language to another. We’re willing to change the subject, register, and use different synonyms to provide the most effective translation taking into consideration not only the words per se but even the cultural background that lies behind the words themselves. But we also know that no translation can be 100% perfect, and that in some cases it is rather impossible to convey the same exact meaning from one source language to a target language. This is most definitely the case when we speak of untranslatable words.

What are they, though?, you might ask. As the term suggests, we are speaking of words that only exist in one language, and that are therefore really hard to translate into other languages, because instead of using one word only, it is necessary to use multiple: however you put it, it’s still not going to sound as natural and smooth as in that word’s native language. That is why, in most cases, these words should be left as they are, in order to preserve their charm and uniqueness.

Well, we know that now you’re probably not able to keep your curiosity under control anymore: without further ado, here’s a list of the most common untranslatable words in many foreign languages!

English untranslatable words

Let’s start with English, one language from which we borrow words constantly, sometimes without even realising it. Maybe it’s because of the many TV shows or movies we all watch in their original language, but how many times do you find yourself using an English word – in the middle of a conversation led in another language? That is also because so many terms in English are just untranslatable. Among the endless ones you can find, we can name for example cheesy: something fake, tacky, likely to be insincere or exaggerated. Think about it, is there one single word that can perfectly translate “cheesy” in your mother tongue? On a more romantic level, we can name serendipity, a word coined apparently back in the XVIII century that refers to something beneficial and fortuitous gained by pure chance or accident. In the Internet world in particular, there are so many words which don’t have a correspondent in any other language. “Facepalm”, “spam”, “meme”… these are all untranslatable words!

Spanish untranslatable words

As it would be expected from one of the most romantic and magical languages in the world, there are so many untranslatable words in Spanish. Among the most popular ones – for its very poetic nuances – we find duende, which is the magical power that a work of art has to deeply move a person. Another very specific word in Spanish is lampiño, which is the one word used to define someone who can’t grow facial hair and therefore looks much younger than it actually is. See how many words are necessary to explain this concept in English? In Spanish, it’s easy-peasy: lampiño. Now, who doesn’t love their mum? In the Spanish community, they apparently needed to label people particularly attached to their moms with a specific word, enmadrado, which actually has a correspondent in Italian too, mammone. In South-American Spanish, they even have a word to refer to someone who likes wearing their shirt outside their pants: cotisuelto. We could go on forever with many more examples, but we don’t want to pavonear: strut around like peacocks, acting like we own the place and we know more than anyone else.

Untranslatable Scandinavian words

Let’s move north, shall we? We’re now in Scandinavia, where the cold of the weather does not affect the warmth of the different languages we can find in these countries. Did you know, for example, that in Norwegian there’s a word to refer to the indescribable feeling people feel when they’re falling in love? It’s called forelsket, and I challenge you to find a one-word correspondent in any other language. Norwegians are also big fans of sandwiches apparently because they also have a word to refer to anything that can be put on a piece of bread: ham, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, hummus, salami… it’s all called pålegg.

Among the most well-known untranslatable words, there’s the Danish Hygge, which has become a whole concept and lifestyle. Hygge refers to the feeling of cosiness, comfort, warmth and safety you feel when you’re at home or around people you love. It perfectly depicts those typical Scandinavian nights spent in front of the fire with a cup of hot chocolate while it’s all snowy outside.

Swedish can be incredibly and poetically untranslatable too: from mångata, which is the reflection of the moon on the water, to fika, which is what you do when you meet up with friends for coffee and snacks, to resfeber, the nervousness and excitement a traveller feels the night before their departure: this language certainly does not lack specific vocabulary.

Among the many untranslatable Finnish words, we’ll present you the most stereotypical one because we find it absolutely hilarious: it’s pronkusema, which is the total distance a reindeer can walk before it needs to stop for a break and snack on some grass. Adorable, right?

French untranslatable words

Ah, the language stereotypically known as the symbol of love and romance. We’ll destroy the stereotype straight away and present you a nostalgic and slightly melancholic example of an untranslatable French word: feuillemort. It is the adjective used to refer to the orangy, yellowy, browny colour of the leaves during the fall season. So specific, right?

Japanese untranslatable words

Some of you might not know this about Japanese, but it is commonly known as a language of surprisingly simple grammar but incredibly specific vocabulary. The Japanese dictionary is – in fact – full of words that describe such precise and vivid concepts, and that is one of the factors that make it such a fascinating language. First things first, a word that you might never need, but that will certainly strike you: komorebi, which is literally the rays of sunshine that are visible through the leaves of the trees. Another really poetic one, boketto, which is the act of wondering about nothing while looking at the horizon. Most people’s guilty pleasure: tsundoku, the bad habit of buying many books and piling them up in the house without reading them. Yeah, if that was a sport I’d be a real record-breaker champion. Another very interesting one is bakkushan, made of two foreign words, the English back and the German schön, which refers to someone who looks gorgeous, but only from behind. We know you want another Japanese one, here’s the last! Age-otori is exclusively used when someone got a haircut but looked better before getting it. So relatable.

Portuguese untranslatable words

When the sun starts to set, thousands of Portuguese people rush to the best spots in town to look at the horizon and witness the last minutes of daylight from a miradouro, a specific spot that offers breathtaking views on the ocean and the typical Portuguese red roofs. From here, the feeling of saudade is unstoppable. To feel saudade means to feel a sense of missing and longing for someone, or something, or somewhere that we can’t have. It can be part of our past or it can be a dream that we think we’ll never reach, but it still triggers a huge sense of nostalgia, even though it’s not necessarily a sad feeling. On a brighter note though, another word in Portuguese – more specifically from Brazil – is cafuné, which is the softly and tenderly strokes through your loved one’s head and hair. Makes us want to fly to Brazil now and give each other cafuné all day long while drinking Caipirinha on Rio de Janeiro’s beach.

Arabic untranslatable words

The language that gave us the world-famous words like “hummus”, “halloumi” and “falafel” has a wide range of untranslatable words we can teach you. The first one is ya’aburne, which is the slightly dark hope for the person you love to live longer than you, so as not to have to mourn their loss. A bit dark, we know, but how fascinating it is to think that one language has a specific word for that concept? Remember that the language reflects the speakers’ needs. To conclude, we’ll leave you with a much brighter word, gurfa, which is the maximum amount of water you can keep on the palm of your hand. Oddly specific, right?

German untranslatable words

German, the language of many artistic and literary movements like Romanticism, does have a large range of untranslatable words that reflect human emotions. For example, among the most well-known, Sehnsucht, which is what you feel when you yearn and long for something or someone you can’t have. Maybe the most loyal representation of this word is the painting by Friedrich, “The wanderer above the Sea of Fog”. Another very popular word in the untranslatable-words-fan-club is Waldeinsamkeit, which is the pleasant sensation of being alone in the woods and in touch with nature. Made your spouse get mad at you for something? Go and get her a little Drachenfutter. It literally means “The dragon’s snack” and it’s what a husband might buy for his wife when he does something he needs to be forgiven for.

We hope you enjoyed our adventurous trip through the world of untranslatable words, where literally anything you can think of might have a word to refer to it. We also hope we gave you one more reason to start learning a new language now: apart from acquiring a new skill that might always come in handy, it will definitely help you broaden your horizons and keep your brain fit, healthy and eager to learn new things! Click here to have access to thousands of courses and lessons in 32 languages available! Italian, Portuguese, French, Spanish, Romanian, Russian, Latvian, Chinese, Arabic… the real fun starts now! See you on VocApp!

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