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Untranslatable German Words: Teil 2 Posted by on Jun 20, 2014 in Language

Guten Tag, and wilkommen to week 2 of my series of posts on ‘untranslatable’ German words! In this series of posts I talk about one or more German words that there is no direct translation for in English. In my first post on this topic, I suggested that the reason for this was to do with the way the German language can combine several nouns to create new words, while the English language does not. Other times, a word will reveal something about German culture, and may exist only as a result of that. Each week I will bring you one or more of these ‘untranslatable’ words, and try to discuss their meaning. Feel free to add any comments on them, or provide alternative translations to the ones I come up with!

(Note: I put inverted commas around the word ‘untranslatable’ to point out that although the words themselves cannot be translated, the meaning of them can be).

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This week, I will talk about two German words that describe opposing reactions to humiliation and embarassment. They are Schadenfreude and Fremdscham.

I will start with Schadenfreude.

Mr. Schadenfreude by “Roger Hargreaves”

Photo by dullhunk on Flickr.com

What is the meaning of Schadenfreude?
Schadenfreude is the act of taking joy in somebody else’s pain or misfortune. This refers to the secret glee you feel when a co-worker you don’t like gets reprimanded by your boss, or the maliciously happy feeling you get when someone who thinks they are perfect makes a fool of themselves. The best translation I’ve seen of it is “malicious pleasure”.

Schadenfreude is one of the most famous German words around!

What does Schadenfreude literally translate as?
The literal translation would be “harm-joy”. Broken down, that’s ‘harm’ (Schaden) and ‘joy’ (Freude).

How would you use it in a sentence?
There is an adjective, namely schadenfroh, which you can use to describe this feeling: Ich bin schadenfroh. (I am the sort of person who takes joy in other people’s misfortunes).

What is the nearest English equivalent?
Although we definitely all feel this from time to time (admit it!), I cannot for the life of me think of an English equivalent. Snide? Spiteful? They just aren’t close enough!

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Now for the other end of the spectrum: Fremdscham.

That moment when your gran starts dancing...

That girl is definitely experiencing Fremdscham right now… Photo by poxypixels on Flickr.com

What is the meaning of Fremdscham?
This is the utter embarrassment you feel when you see somebody else being humiliated. Examples include that awkward moment when a friend attempts to tell a funny joke but it falls flat (or even offends someone), or if you’re watching your boss give a speech with their flies undone.

What does Fremdscham literally translate as?
It is made up of the words Fremd (foreign; alien) and Scham (shame; embarrassment).So, literally, it is “foreign shame” – feeling embarrassment for someone else.

I should point out that although the German word ‘fremd’ means ‘foreign’, it is not the same as the English word ‘foreign’, which exclusively means something or someone from another country (though it does mean that in German, too). In German, you can say ‘fremd’ to mean something strange, alien, unrelated to you, etc. It is actually pretty difficult to explain. Anyway, the point is that when I say “foreign shame”, it has nothing to do with foreigners.

How would you use it in a sentence?
Here’s a good one I found on an online forum:
Die fremdscham erregendsten fb-kommentare eurer “freunde” (‘Your „friends‘“ most Fremdscham-inducing FB comments’… I think we all know that feeling)

What is the nearest English equivalent?
The word cringeworthy is probably the closest to it – though I’m not even sure if this is a proper word, and even if it is, it doesn’t specifically relate to the embarrassment felt for a person who isn’t you. Do you have any other suggestions?

And when do you experience Schadenfreude or Fremdscham in your daily lives?

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About the Author:Constanze

Servus! I'm Constanze. I'm half English and half German. I write here because I'm passionate about my languages and my roots. I also work as a translator & group fitness instructor.


Comments:

  1. Levi:

    I do believe that sadism is a decent comparison for Schadenfreude. Joy at the expense of others’ pain and misfortune would sum up both pretty well.

  2. Marcia Bernhard:

    How about ‘sadistic pleasure’ for ‘Schadenfreude’?

  3. Chrystal:

    Actually, the word ‘foreign’ in English doesn’t exclusively mean to be from another country. It can refer to anything that is not familiar to you or anything that doesn’t inherently belong in the place where you’ve found it. A foreign object, for example. Cringeworthy is most definitely a word, and would be the closest I can think of to Fremdscham. Or, at least, it can be.

  4. Tim Vergenz:

    “I should point out that although the German word ‘fremd’ means ‘foreign’, it is not the same as the English word ‘foreign’, which exclusively means something or someone from another country (though it does mean that in German, too). In German, you can say ‘fremd’ to mean something strange, alien, unrelated to you, etc. It is actually pretty difficult to explain.”

    This is actually the same way in English. Though this meaning is slightly less common, ‘foreign’ also means something strange or unfamiliar. Saying something is a “foreign concept” is a common expression to mean you’ve never heard of the idea before or that it’s completely unfamiliar to you.

    • Constanze:

      @Tim Vergenz Yes, you’re right! I forgot that we can say “foreign concept” and so on. I think that when I translated it literally as “foreign shame”, it sounded like it was to do with shame felt for foreign countries or people, and I wanted to explain that it had nothing to do with this. Thanks for your comment. 🙂

  5. Magda:

    I would suggest “second-hand embarrassment” for Fremdsham.

  6. Noz Urbina:

    “I suggested that the reason for this was to do with the way the German language can combine several nouns to create new words, while the English language does not”
    Although it’s less basic to the language, English absolutely supports compound words. We even do it freely across verb/noun/adjective boundaries. You have very old examples like ‘fisherman’, ‘nothing’,’runway’,’takeoff’, and thousands more. And you can find modern ones that show this practice is alive and well. These would include ‘download’, ‘hardware’,’ software’. Those are off the top of my head but we have definitely kept that trick from our Germanic roots. 🙂

    • Constanze:

      @Noz Urbina Yes, you’re quite right, actually… I guess the German ones are so much more memorable! The English ones seem quite ‘functional’ in comparison. 🙂

  7. Noz Urbina:

    I’d say sadism is a much stronger word than schadenfreude. It implies the ability to enjoy real cruelty, whereas schadenfreude is more in the “naughty and mean” territory. It’s a level below in intensity, no?

    Nice blog. I am reading it for you the first time while stepping on to a plane for Stuttgart! 🙂

    • Constanze:

      @Noz Urbina I think sadism is a pretty extreme form of Schadenfreude, yes. Schadenfreude is more like the secret happiness you feel when someone you detest is publically humiliated (for example).
      I love that you found this blog at the airport! I hope your journey to Stuttgart is/was pleasant! 😀

  8. Hans:

    To be happy about another persons missary. That is to be: Schadenfroh… Fremdscham isn’t to be am amberest for someone else and unable to do anything about it. Like watching your child at a school play on stage with a bugger hanging out of his nose and not being able to wipe it off for him. But the guy sitting behind you and laughing about it, well that Schadenfrohe SOB will get his one of this days. Why not bring it in to the English Language? Let’s face it, the word ANGST was never heard before about 6 years ago and now a lot of well educated people use it every day. Ich habe angst used to translate into: I am scared. Now it is : I have angst. Oh well.

  9. Patrick:

    In portuguese, we have a term for Fremdscham, “Vergonha alheia”, it came from the same roots as well, “vergonha” meaning “shame” and “alheia” meaning “of someone else; not from yourself”.

  10. Don't tell him Pike:

    Always thought ‘ Schadenfreude’ literally translated as ‘Shadow Friend’, oh, and ‘Hans’ I think ‘angst’ has been in fairly common usage for quite a lot longer than you suggest. Nice site Constanza, keep it up. : )