Untranslatable words

People are endlessly fascinated by words that are claimed to be untranslatable. A recent request by the American dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster led to many suggestions of words that are untranslatable.

On 28 February 2023, the publisher tweeted a question: ‘Non-native English Speakers, what’s a word from your language that you think is perfect that doesn’t have an English equivalent?’ https://twitter.com/MerriamWebster/status/1630580710208688129?s=20

Here are just a few of the many responses:

  • Verschlimmbessern (German): make something worse by trying to make it better.
    For some other German words, please see https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/untranslatable-german-words
  • Soubhiyé (Arabic): the quiet time when you’re the only person awake in the house and can enjoy a cup of coffee before the day starts.
  • Tsundoku (Japanese): acquiring books and letting them pile up without reading them.
  • Kuchisabishii (Japanese): eating because you are bored. (‘lonely mouth’)
  • Hiányérzet (Hungarian): the feeling that something you cannot pinpoint is missing.
    Here is a list of 23 Hungarian words for which English has no direct equivalent: https://www.catchbudapest.com/23-awesome-hungarian-words
  • Qti maz (Armenian): someone who is too concerned with details that don’t matter. (‘nose hair’)

For a list of some English words taken from foreign languages, please see https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/top-10-favorite-words-from-foreign-languages

Are any words really untranslatable?

When people claim that a word is not translatable into English, they usually believe that there exists no English word with the same meaning. Typically, they usually also believe one of 3 things:

  • Although the word has no single-word equivalent in English, it is possible to convey the word’s meaning in English fully, using a description. The longer that description is, the less likely it is that people will try to talk in English about the concept denoted by the word.
    This 1st view seems to work well for all the words I have listed above: the English descriptions seem to convey the meanings fully.
  • It is possible to describe the meaning of the word in English, but the word’s meaning is bound up so intimately with culture that it is impossible to convey important components of the meaning to English speakers. And even if English speakers can grasp the word’s meaning on an intellectual level, they cannot truly feel the full richness of the meaning.
    People often adopt this 2nd view in talking about words that are said to have particular cultural resonance, for example: saudade (Portuguese, ‘longing for something or someone lost’) and hygge (Danish, ‘cosy conviviality’)
    Some such words with cultural resonance often end up as loan words in English (and other languages).
  • It is impossible to explain any part of the word’s meaning in English at all.
    This 3rd view seems untenable. Surely, it is always possible to convey at least some part of a word’s meaning, even if a long description is needed.

Conclusion

A word is ‘untranslatable’ if the word can be translated into English, but:

  • not with just a single English word; and
  • only with some risk of losing some important culture-specific components of the meaning.

7 comments

  1. My mother used to claim that there was no English equivalent of the French exclamation “Tiens!”.
    It has often been claimed that there is no simple way of translating the phrase “wishful thinking” into French.
    The East German government always tried to minimise contact between its citizens and foreign countries. This policy was called “Begrenzung”. How do you translated “Begrenzung”? The playwright Bertolt Brecht’s technique of “Verfremdung” is always translated as “Alienation”. That’s as close as you can get, but I think that it’s not quite it.

    1. Maybe we could now translate Begrenzung as social distancing.
      I think alienation effect is now a term of art as the standard translation of Verfremdungseffekt, so it mightn’t be sensible to change the English term now. (we spent a lot of time discussing this concept in our A-level German class, as one of our set books was Brecht’s play Mutter Courage).
      I think the normal Russian translation of Verfremdung is остранение (ostranenie). Both the German and Russian terms mean making-strange, which probably is clearer than alienation.

    1. I’d be interested to know why there is no English translation of it.
      I first came across the word in the phrase fête champêtre, which someone claimed was a good way to say picnic (rather than just the invasive anglo-saxon pique-nique).
      I always thought fête champêtre sounds a bit more elaborate than a simple picnic.

  2. It could sometimes be translated by the adjective “country”, as in “country dance”, but it wouldn’t often be appropriate.
    This whole problem first became visible to me when I was working at the headquarters of the Bank of Montreal in the Seventies. One of the female staff came in wearing a new summer frock, and a colleague of ours described it to her as “une robe champêtre”. She was an anglophone, and when she asked for a translation none of us could provide one.

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