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Lost in Translation: Untranslatable Words and Phrases Posted by on Jul 6, 2015 in Uncategorized

Let’s face it; there are some things that language simply cannot help us express. Religious experiences, travel experiences, life experiences – really any kind of personal, subjective experience is difficult to put into words that will accurately portray the experience being had. But don’t feel bad, that’s not your job; that’s why we pay poets the big bucks.

Itchy Feet: Le Going Hôme

But language isn’t just clumsy to communicate experiences with. Even between languages, there is plenty of mutual unintelligibility to go around. I’m a big fan of these linguistic loopholes: words or phrases that have no clear translation into other languages. I like them because they remind us how incomplete language can be—not just in communicating how your six months in France went, but also ideas that others may take for granted. Language, after all, is a moving, living thing, and it’s never “finished.”

But enough waxing philosophical. Here’s my incomplete List of Untranslateables that Should be English Words:

Jayus (Indonesian): a joke that is told so incompetently told, or that is so unfunny, that you can’t help but laugh

Palegg (Norwegian): anything which can be put on a slice of bread (does that include another slice of bread?)

Saudade (Portuguese): an intense desire or longing for something you can’t get back

Schadenfreude (German): taking pleasure from the misfortune of others

Torschlusspanik (German): literally, “door-closing panic”; the panic one feels when realizing that opportunities diminish as one ages

Ya’aburnee (Arabic): literally, “you bury me”; your declared hope that you will die before the person you’re speaking to because you couldn’t bear to lose them

Age-otori (Japanese): a haircut that makes you look worse than before

Luftmensch (Yiddish): literally, “air person” (although it sounds better); a dreamer, someone with their head in the clouds

L’appel du vide (French): (I’m so glad I found this one, because I oddly feel it all the time and have never discovered a term for it) – when you’re up high on a bridge or a tall building, the odd urge you get (literally, “call of the void”) to leap off

Schlimazl (Yiddish): a chronically unlucky person

Culaccino (Italian): the little ring-shaped stain left on a table by a wet glass or mug

Gufra (Arabic): the quantity of water that can be held in your cupped hands

Iktsuarpok (Inuit): frustration at waiting for someone to show up

Utepils (Norwegian): to sit outside on a sunny day, enjoying a beer

Tartle (Scottish): when introducing someone, the moment of hesitation where you realize you don’t remember their name

Backpfeifengesicht (German): a face which needs a good slapping

Esprit d’escalier (French): literally, “the wit of the staircase”; the perfect comeback you didn’t think of until walking down the stairs fifteen minutes later

Sisu (Finnish): someone who is utterly unconquerable; an indomitable badass of unsurpassed tenacity and doggedness in the face of all odds

Pochemuchka (Russian): someone who asks too many questions

Tingo (Pascuense): to habitually borrow things from a neighbor or friend until they have nothing left

Prozvonit (Czech), dar un toque (Spanish), fare uno squillo (Italian): the act of calling someone but only letting it ring once, so they’ll have to call you back and you won’t have to spend any money (I never heard of this until I moved to Europe, where top-up phones are a thing)

Any good ones that I missed? How about delightful words from English that aren’t translatable in your native language?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


Comments:

  1. Lisa:

    How do you translate “role model” into French?

  2. Mad:

    Interesting !

    But there is a little mistake for the french term, it’s “Esprit d’escalier” (and not “Espirit”).

  3. Sheila Morris:

    Vemod (Swedish)–tender sadness. Thoughtful melancholy. A calm acceptance that things didn’t come out as you had hoped.

    Lagom (Swedish)–just exactly enough. Less wouldn’t work, but you don’t want/need any more.

  4. Val:

    “Prozvonit (Czech), dar un toque (Spanish), fare uno squillo (Italian):” in German this process is called “Anklingeln” and was a common thing with cellphones prior to the internet-based “flatrate” communication age.

    It is/was free to call someone and let his phone ring, as long as the connection was not established. Back in the day, when you needed to dial up to connect to the internet, this was a proven method to let someone know you’ve sent him an email and he could check his account. (just as an example). Oh those days you had to pay for “the internet” by the minute… 🙂

  5. Ida:

    Lagom (Swedish), Not to much and not to little, the perfect amount (of sugar in the coffee for example). The tricky thing is what’s “lagom” for you is most likely not “lagom” for me and therefor it’s impossible to put a specific measurement to the word.

    Palegg(Norwegian) is the same in Swedish too with a slight different spelling, pålägg.

    /Ida

  6. Mondanbeterin:

    Some of these examples might not have a translation to English but to other languages, Palegg for example (Belag/Brotbelag in German) or prozvonit (anklopfen in German).

  7. Ida:

    Fika (Swedish), a social institution in Sweden and very important to all Swedes. You sit down with friends/family/collegues etc to drink a cup of coffee and eat a sandwish/pastries and just chat for a while. This can happen any day of the week at any time really both at home and out on the town.

    Orka (Swedish), One word to describe when you are to tired/lazy or have no desire to do something.

  8. Ida:

    Sambo (Swedish), is what you call yourself if you live together with a significant other without being married in Sweden. From the word samboende – living together/cohabitation.

  9. Karen:

    облагораживать ahblagarazhivat. Closest English is to ennoble. It means to be lifted to a higher spiritual/emotional level, out of your present situation. My Russian roommate taught me this word during the prison exercise yard scene in Shawahank Redemption when Andy plays the opera over the P.A. and they all start gazing up into the sky….perfect word but hard to translate directly.

  10. Zarih Sundberg:

    Schadenfreude (German): taking pleasure from the misfortune of others. The Swedish have the same; skadeglädje.

  11. Kicior:

    I would add the old Polish word ‘załatwić’. Well, I know that dictionaries will serve sith something like ‘sort out’, ‘settle’ but none of them transforms the true meaning. Załatwianie (sorting out, let’s stick to this) involves initiative, sometimes some shady connection, even a barter swap and always suggests that it has been dine with a help some supernatural forces 🙂

  12. Kristín:

    Palegg also exists in Icelandic as álegg, with exactly the same meaning (both languages have the same root in Old Norse). And no, that does not include another slice of bread.

  13. P Mario:

    Very interesting! Thank you.

  14. Benedetto:

    The Italian “impegnativo” – loosely translated as “committing” – something with such high quality that it forces its owner/user to bring their game up to an entirely new level

  15. kragthang:

    I was very happy, when a friend used the German word “Kitsch” in English. Because I really couldn’t think of another word to use to describe how cheap and terrible I found something in a very particular situation.

  16. Wayne Federigan:

    we have a Filipino word for Palegg, it’s “palaman” :3

  17. Chrissy:

    How would you translate (Enlish) “unedible”?

  18. Peter Enis:

    ungenießbar in German


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