Recently I was sent a link to an infographic containing some apparently untranslatable words for love, and this got me wondering if there really is such a thing as an ‘untranslatable’ word or concept.

The words featured in lists of ‘untranslatable’ words are often given poetic-sounding meanings, and other more ordinary and common meanings they have are ignored.

In some languages a single word might represent a meaning that translates as a phrase in other languages, and there are some culture concepts which can be hard to translate – that is the words themselves can be translated but the meanings they represent might be specific to a particular culture.

The Dutch word gezelligheid (“the warmth of being with loved ones”), is an example from the infographic, which has an equivalent in German: geborgenheit, so it isn’t completely untranslatable.

Are there any words in languages you know that you believe to be untranslatable?

5 thoughts on “Untranslatable?

  1. It seems like a lot of “untranslatable” words are simply about specificity: does another language have a term that is used in exactly the same way as this one? And I’m sceptical that the people putting such lists together actually take time to understand those usages. I wonder whether all these kinds of terms really are so very specific, or have other uses that are conveniently ignored?

    Generally you’d have very little trouble translating things into idiomatic English (or whatever); you’d lose a bit of specificity by using a more general word or phrase, but if it’s the one you’d use in English, is that a problem? Or, as these articles always seem to manage, you could just use a sentence to get the very specific point across. When languages are constructed very differently, though, it’s not surprising there isn’t word-for-word correspondence – some of those “words” you linked could equally be considered as entire sentences.

    As you suggest, I suspect real issues with translation tend to be based on culture, rather than linguistics: philosophical, religious and similar terms that require a lot of background or a specific worldview to make sense. Linguistics may be another good example, because lots of terms are very language-specific and are applied to very different phenomena in different languages (see: basically all school English grammatical terminology).

    Another kind of untranslatability is where a term is particularly vague and any translation causes translation gain, so sometimes deliberate ambiguity cannot be replicated. I’d suggest Manx has a good shot here, simply because of its love of genericism: does another language have a term that means “timorous or cowardly”, or one that means “kidney/ladder/shroud”?

    Hmm, I wonder if other languages have a word corresponding to the very specific English use of “angst”? I can’t definite in English, which seems a good start.

  2. Clearly there are many cases in which a word in one language is not directly translatable in another. The thing that really makes this difficult is not an issue of language, as you have already indicated. It is mostly a matter of culture. The linguistic part of it is simply a matter of the available vocabulary in the target language. If the target language doesn’t have a specific word, and using a phrase is too cumbersome, then languages borrow or create words for that purpose. So, linguistically, “mismatches” between the vocabularies of languages are not uncommon, and don’t result in something being “untranslatable”. Languages and speakers are flexible enough to get around those obstacles easily.

    Going back to the cultural issue, I still don’t think it’s possible for a word to be untranslatable… unless one insists on a single word gloss. If a language has a word then the concept is humanly comprehensible. Therefore, the word is explainable in the target language. If the word in question is a term that requires significant education, that might be a hindrance… but then again, we have tech terms and jargon in our *own* languages that we don’t understand. I don’t really consider that to be a matter of something being untranslatable. At the point where the concept is grasped, that’s when the linguistic processes of borrowing/creating words begins.

    Intangible concepts like love might pose some difficulty, but this is because they are difficult to describe anyway in the source language. Disparity between different languages’ words for love is an old problem that has been dealt with many times. So, I just don’t think “untranslatable” words are a possibility.

  3. Javanese speakers like to post versions of this list under the heading “Javanese is more efficient than English. Here’s proof.” The terms aren’t “untranslatable,” and some of them have more concise English formulations or merely refer to culturally specific things, but there is an oddly concise quality to many Javanese words.

    walk slowly on the edge (side) of the road.

    fall backward and then hit own head

    Ugly expressions because of pushing something out (in the toilet)

    got hit by a truck that is moving backward
    (kunduran trek)

    talk too much about unimportant thing

    smearing one’s body with hot ointment or liquid and then massaging it

    going without notice/permission

    walking without using anything

    taking the longer way to get to the destination

    riding an old bicycle

    falling/ tripping forward (and may hit own face)

    side effect after circumcision

    a small, sharp thing embedded inside one’s skin
    (susuben/ ketlusupen)

    spending a lot of time doing nothing

    feeling uncomfortable because there is something that smells bad

    things getting out from a container accidentally because of gravity

    get hit by finger into the eyes

    wrong sleep (head) position making the veins become neck pain

    get farting from someone

    do not have brain in the head
    (pekok/ kenthir)

    get hit by thing collapsing on top of one’s head/ body
    (kambrukan/ kembrukan)

    drinking straight from the bottle without using glass, where whole bottle tip gets into the mouth

    cannot open eyes because something is shining very bright

    cannot hold bowel movement

    something coming out from one’s rear end little by little
    (keceret/ kecirit)

    hanging on tightly to something in order to be inert
    (gondhelan )

    falling/ tripping accidentally because of a hole

    doing something without thinking about the consequences

    being overly active carelessly

    feeling unwell because of cold temperature

    making too much noise, disturbing other people’s sleep

    tripping over accidentally caused by wires, cloths, gowns etc.

    being alone (or with a companion) in the corner of a place/ room doing something suspicious

    pretend to be poor/ no money

    feeling dirty/afraid of something

    pretend to be homeless, no money and never take shower

    a pyroclastic cloud that came out from a volcano
    (wedus gembel)

    Laughing Out Loud

  4. In my opinion pretty much everything can be translated from one language to another. I agree, depending on the culture, environment, history, etc. we may have to get creative and use a descriptive phrase instead of one-to-one word translation. Even if in Inuit languages you can find many words for different kinds of snow, you can translate them to English using additional adjectives, etc. However, if you wanted to express “snow” in, for example, Bantu, would you still call it “translation”?

  5. I think it depends on what you mean by “translate”. I think pretty much any word or expression can be “described” in any other language—I guess you could think of this as a sort of Turing-completeness of human languages 😉

    But to “translate” as I usually understand it, means to find an equivalent for given a context. I can translate the word しつれい to various English expressions depending on the context, but as very rough approximations, they would not always translate back to the same word upon re-translation.

    Similarly, when you can translate an expression like ありがた迷惑, you can translate it as “unwelcome favour”, which leaves out an important detail, or you can translate it as something like “the nuisance of having to thank someone for something you didn’t want”, which completely lacks concision.

    And then a term like わびさび is essentially untranslatable, because it is shorthand for a whole approach to aesthetics that doesn’t really exist in the English language. If you are stuck translating the word, you can either attempt to explain the whole concept where one word in Japanese suffices, or you can go with a rough match for something like “rustic” or “beautifully flawed”, neither of which would satisfy anyone that knows the term.

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