20 of the World's Most Beautiful Untranslatable Words
November 27, 2016
By Andrea Reisenauer, guest blogger.
As every language learner probably knows, translating between two languages is no easy task. Each language has its own linguistic, grammatical and semantic complexities, and many ideas are simply "lost in translation."
The relationship between words and their meaning is a fascinating one. Linguists have spent decades deconstructing and studying words and their meaning and trying to discover why there are so many feelings and ideas that we can't put words to. Many languages are simply not able to capture the essence of the meaning of a word in another language and these words are often considered "untranslatable."
While there are thousands upon thousands of untranslatable words, today we're going to take a look at 20 of the most magical words that have no direct translation in English in 20 different foreign languages. These beautiful words provide a fascinating glimpse into foreign languages and cultures and the human condition itself.
GermanThe German word waldeinsamkeit refers to the feeling of being alone in the woods, solitude, and a connectedness to nature. It consists of two words: "wald," meaning forest, and "einsamkeit," meaning loneliness or solitude. It hints at both the feeling of being alone in the woods and also at a peaceful oneness with nature.
InuitIktsuarpok refers to the feeling of anticipation when you're expecting someone that leads you to constantly check to see if they're coming. It's the impatient excitement for a visit that makes you look out the window countless times in hope of seeing your guest arrive.
JapaneseKomorebi is a Japanese word that refers to the sunlight that filters through the leaves of trees. The word is made up of three kanji and the hiragana particle れ. The first kanji means "tree" or "trees," the second kanji refers to "escape," and the third kanji means "light" or "sun."
SpanishSobremesa is the Spanish word that refers to the time spent after lunch or dinner socializing with the people you shared the meal with. Meals are a very important part of the Spanish culture, and the Spanish people value the time spent relaxing and chatting after finishing eating. The Catalan equivalent is sobretaula.
UrduGoya is an Urdu word that refers to the transporting suspension of disbelief that happens when fantasy is so realistic that it temporarily becomes reality. It is usually associated with good, powerful storytelling.
SwedishThis beautiful Swedish word refers to the road-like reflection of the moon on the water. It's the long, wavy shape that appears across the water when the moon is shining on it. It is made up of the prefixes "Måne" meaning moon, and "gata" meaning street/road. For this reason, it is sometimes indirectly translated as "moon-path," "moon-river," "moon-track," or "moon-wake."
PortugueseSaudade refers to the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love which is lost. This feeling of emptiness, melancholy or nostalgia is often considered characteristic of the Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese temperament, although it also entered Galician Spanish with the same spelling. It carries with it the repressed knowledge that the object of longing may never return and was once described as "the love that remains" after someone is gone. It is a bittersweet, empty feeling of something or someone that is missing.
TagalogThe Tagalog noun kilig is often used in the Philippine culture to refer to the thrilling feeling of butterflies in your stomach that you typically feel when something romantic happens. When used as an adjective, it refers to the exhilaration a person feels during an exciting or romantic experience, such as catching your crushes' eye for the first time or watching a marriage proposal.
WelshHiraeth is a Welsh word that refers to homesickness mixed with grief and sadness over the lost or departed, or a type of longing for the homeland or the romanticized past. It represents a mixture of longing, nostalgia, wistfulness and yearning. The concept of hiraeth is considerably similar to the Portuguese saudade mentioned earlier, the Romanian dor, and the Ethiopian tizita.
YaghanThe word mamihlapinatapai (sometimes also spelled mamihlapinatapei) comes from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego. It refers to the wordless, meaningful look shared by two people who both want to initiate something, but are reluctant to do so. It also can refer to an unspoken but private moment shared by two people when each person knows the other understands and is in agreement with what is being expressed. Mamihlapinatapai is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the "most succinct word" and is considered remarkably difficult to translate.
DanishThis Danish word refers to a warm, friendly, cozy, delightfully intimate moment or thing. It gives off imagery of a candlelit winter evening at home with warm blankets and maybe a bit of alcohol. While there are similar words in German (gemütlichkeit), Swedish (gemytlig) and Norwegian (hyggelig), there is no direct translation in English.
FrenchPerhaps one of the most Parisian of all French words, the verb "flâner" was defined in the 19th century by the Paris literary crowd. It refers to the art of leisurely strolling the streets of Paris without any goal or destination simply for the pleasure of soaking up the city's beauty. These aimless pedestrians are known as "flâneurs."
ArabicWhile the Arabic word ya'aburnee literally means "you bury me," the concept it represents goes far deeper than that (no pun intended). Ya'aburnee is a way to declare your hope that your loved one will outlive you because of how unbearable it would be to live without them. It is a gorgeous, painful expression of desire to spare yourself the pain of a life without a person you love.
14. Ré nao (热闹)
ChineseThe Chinese word ré nao is usually translated as "lively" or "bustling," but its true meaning goes beyond these adjectives. A place or situation that is ré nao is not only fun and lively, but also has a special vibe that makes everyone want to be there. A lively, special bar or club may be ré nao, but so might a university class or meeting with friends.
NorwegianUtepils is a Norwegian word that literally translates to "outdoor lager." Utepils has taken on several different interpretations within Scandinavian culture and among beer drinkers worldwide throughout the generations, but it typically refers to the act of sitting outside on a sunny day enjoying a beer. It also may refer to the first beer you drink outside on a warm, sunny day, and is the (great) name of a brewing company.
RussianThe Russian word toska can be roughly translated to mean sadness or lugubriousness, but according to Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov, these English words don't come close to its real meaning. "No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom."
HindiThe Hindi word jijivisha refers to the strong, eternal desire to live and to continue living. It is usually used to talk about a person who loves life and always has intense emotions and desires to live and thrive.
HebrewFirgun is a modern, informal Hebrew term and concept in Israeli culture that describes a generosity of spirit and the unselfish joy that something good has happened or might happen to someone else. Another possible definition describes firgun as a genuine, unselfish feeling of delight or pride in someone else's accomplishment. The infinitive verb form of the word, lefargen, means to make someone feel good without any ulterior motives.
DutchThis Dutch word can be associated with the Danish concept of hyggelig and the German concept of gemütlichkeit, although its definition depends on the context. Gezelligheid refers to a convivial, cozy, or warm atmosphere, but can also refer to the warmth of being with loved ones, the feeling of seeing a friend after a long absence, or a general togetherness that provides a feeling of warmth. Many consider it the word that most closely encompasses the heart of Dutch culture.
SerbianThe Serbian word merak is a wonderful little word that refers to a feeling of bliss and the sense of oneness with the universe that comes from the simplest of pleasures. It is the pursuit of small, daily pleasures that all add up to a great sense of happiness and fulfillment.
All of these beautiful words defy direct English translation and provide a magical glimpse into different languages, cultures, and the human experience.
Have you ever come across a word or phrase in your foreign language that you felt couldn't be translated into your native language?
Feel free to share in the comments below!
November 28, 2016
Fascinating! But nothing for Italian?! :)
Lucia - Rocket Languages Tutor
November 28, 2016
Very interesting article. I got one word in Italian! :)
Sobremesa reminded me of l'abbiocco, which is used to describe that groggy feeling after a big meal, where you feel sleepy and just want to doze off at the table.
Then I came across gluggaveður ("windowweather") while studying Icelandic, which describes the weather that is nice to see, but not to be in.
November 29, 2016
I also enjoyed this article - terrific examples of how language is intrinsically intertwined with culture and values.
November 29, 2016
I am intrigued by the German word waldeinsamkeit. Even before reading the definition my mind immediately went to On Walden Pond. I believe that Thoreau experienced waldeinsamkeit there.
But my favorite at the moment has to be saudade, which, I see, has the same general meaning in Spanish. I happen to be experiencing saudade right now. But I am not looking for sympathy, because it has also reignited my jijivisha.
November 29, 2016
My Favorite: Komorebi : That's the word that refers to what has caused me headaches in the car since early childhood. Nice!
Iktsuarpok : What I will be feeling all through Christmas.
Saudade: What I had last year but now I look back on with understanding as a more experienced person.
Second Favorite: Goya: What I feel when I'm in Disney World for the first time in a few years.
November 29, 2016
Oh, I am glad to see the Catalan equivalent "Sobretaula" to 'Sobremesa.' I can spring it on my friend in Tarragona next time we talk. :)
¡Artículo muy divertido, gracias!