It is fascinating to discover the relationship between words and their meaning. Linguists have taken words apart to discover why there are various ideas and feeling built into them that some words cannot describe and the English language could not fully recognize.
Several books and articles have been written on how words cannot say everything all the time. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, words symbolize the relationship between things and people but they do not pertain to the inviolable truth.
Translation, according to some writers, is an underappreciated art. It is a complex multilingual gymnastics, to show that words belong to one another. Words reveal many things about the conditions of human beings. Foreign words are rich and their meanings are layered that despite the unusual vocabulary of the English language, many of these concepts are almost untranslatable.
The English language has 171,476 words that are currently used, according to the Oxford Dictionary. Obsolete words number around 47,156. Most adult native speakers of the English language know about 20,000 to 35,000 words, while a child of eight who is a native English know about 10,000 words.
Languages often have loopholes. These are the gaps representing words that cannot be translated without a lengthy description. These are also concepts that are difficult to explain to other cultures.
The total number of living languages today is 7,999. Each one shows the depth and breadth of human existence. Each of them provides a different way of seeing the world and it is not possible for any language to fully encapsulate the depth of human experience.
Likewise, there are words that do not exist in another language. Many factors lead cultures to invent specific and unique words, including history, climate, religion, humor, cuisine and geography. Do you have a single English word that describes the essence of yourself that you pour into your work? Is it putting your heart and soul into it? It is something that is much deeper than passion. However, the Greeks have a single word for it – μεράκι that means meraki (doing something with love, creativity and soul).
How do translators do it?
Translators are experts in translating words, ideas and concepts from a source language to a target language. However, even the best of them could be stumped when they encounter words that are difficult to translate due to differences in cultures.
Each culture has its own concepts, ideas and terms that do not have an exact equivalent in English and other languages. But translators have a way to explain what they mean – by giving them a longer description so that they can make sense in the intended language. You can see some of them here and we hope that you’ll have fun reading about these interesting words.
This is an Italian noun denoting the sleepy feeling you get after you’ve had a big meal. Just like children, you can feel drowsy after a really good, satiating meal. Although it is not advisable to take a nap right after you’ve eaten, Italians describe it as avere l’abbiocco or ”having an abbiocco.”
Desenrascanço is a Portuguese noun to indicate the ability to improvise to provide a fast solution. You could say that this is improvisation to get out of a problem using either your wit or whatever tools are available.
The Danes use this adjective to describe in a single word the combination of everything caring, friendly, safe and snuggly. In English, you can say contented, intimate, cozy or comfortable, but the combination used by the Danes goes deeper than each of these English words can convey.
The Spanish noun sobremesa is the conversation around the table after you’ve had lunch. The Spanish people enjoy having long meals with family and friends. For them having lunch is not just about eating food together, it also involves the stimulating and engaging conversation they have after a good lunch.
In Norway, the winter is long and dark. Their summers are brief, with the sun shining gloriously, which every Norwegian cherishes. Utepils is the word they use for the beer that they can drink outside their house to enjoy the beautiful sunlight. It is like paying homage to the brief summer when the sun shines brightly.
Almost everyone has experienced this problem – trying to improve something but making it worse in the process. The Germans has a single word for it – verschlimmbessern. It’s like fixing a bad haircut yourself instead of getting it fixed by another hairstylist.
You’ve probably seen pictures of the moonlight reflected on water and it’s possible that you search for something poetic to properly describe it in English. The Swedish word for it is mångata or moon-road. The more commonly used word in Turkish for reflection of the moonlight on water is yakamoz. This term is used to describe any light that reflects on water. It can also be used to describe the sparkle of fish when light shines on its scales. Another Turkish term is gümüşservi but this is not commonly used.
What term would you use for that meaningful but wordless look that two people who desire to initiate something but are unwilling to start sharing? In Yagan, an indigenous language used by the people of Tierra del Fuego in South Africa, they call it mamihlapinatapei.
Jayus is an Indonesian word. It is the term they use for that feeling when someone poorly delivers a joke that is already unfunny that you cannot do anything else other than laugh.
In the Slovak and Czech languages, prozvonit is used to describe an annoying habit. Many people have been in this situation. It is when someone calls you on your mobile phone and allows it to ring only once before hanging up. This is done in order for the other person to call back. The previous caller then gets to save money on consumed minutes.
We’ve all heard about the problems children have with their stage mothers. In Japan, they use a term for a mother who persistently pushes her children to gain academic achievement – kyoikumama.
Have you ever experienced a situation when you are about to introduce someone but you’ve momentarily forgotten the person’s name? The Scottish word for it is tartle.
You get the feeling that someone is dropping by for a visit. This can be called intuition. But for the Intuit, they have a specific word for it – iktsuarpok that literally means to go outside to see if someone is coming.
English does not have a single word for running your fingers tenderly through the hair of a person or child. But in Brazilian Portuguese, you can use the word cafuné.
Many people fear that they are losing opportunities as they age. Some women try to get married and have children by racing against their ”biological clock.” In German, they call it ”gate-closing panic,” which they term as torschlusspanik.
One of the languages used in Easter Island is Pascuense. They describe the act of someone who covets what his or her friends have by slowly borrowing all the items they desire. The word they use is tingo.
Ilunga is a word that many translators find very difficult to translate. It is a word from the Tshiluba language, an African language spoken in the southeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The term encompasses a feeling or action – forgiving the abuse when it occurs once, tolerate it when done a second time and for the third offense, no tolerance or forgiveness will be given.
Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese concept that refers to a way of living where the person accepts the natural cycle of decay and growth, and finding beauty in something that is not perfect in the eyes of others.
Duende, which is a Spanish word, used to describe mythical entities that dwell in the forests, much like trolls, sprites or fairies. They are said to possess humans and cause them to a have a variety of feelings that range from awe to a sense of beauty to fear. Federico García Lorca, a Spanish playwright and poet changed its meaning. Now it is used to describe the mysterious power that a work of art exudes, which can deeply move the persons that view it.
If you still long for someone or something that you love and lost, the Portuguese word for it is saudade.
Toska is a Russian word that describes the feeling that has many layers. It could be a huge spiritual anguish, a dull ache that goes deep into your soul, an inexplicable yearning or vague restlessness, ennui, boredom, nostalgia or longing for something that you cannot actually describe.
This is a German term for that feeling of pleasure or elation when seeing someone suffering from a misfortune.
There you have it. These are just some of the words that are almost untranslatable into English. When you need accurate and professional translation service, call our expert translators here at Day Translations. We guarantee all our work. You can reach us easily via phone or email. We operate 24/7 so you can reach us anytime wherever you are in the world.
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