by Charles A. Kauffman
Anyone who has enjoyed the festive frivolities of the famous Munich Oktoberfest might relate to the word Gemütlichkeit – one word that encompasses a host of good feelings such as enjoyment, glow, comfort, coziness, warmth, friendship. Native speakers of German know exactly what it means in various settings, yet the word cannot be translated precisely into another language using simply one word. Gemütlichkeit conjures up positive feelings prompted by atmosphere, music, tastes, smells, friends, and enjoyment of the moment. And those words together do not fully describe feel-good Gemütlichkeit. The Dutch have a comparable word in gezelligheid, and its adjectival form gezellig. Speakers of Dutch can describe “a great city with atmosphere” as a gezellige stad or “a fun party” as a gezellig feestje, or a “nice person” as gezellige persoon, or a “cozy room” as gezellige kamer. To do justice to these gezellig- words, translators need to creatively paraphrase in order to capture the full scope of the original meaning. These words simply do not have one-for-one translations.
The general word “untranslatable,” used widely across various media and in expressions of culture, implies a lexical gap. A word in one language that cannot be represented by a single word in another language has to be explained. But, the word “untranslatable” itself is a misnomer. Translators of all languages must understand unique words in a source language and render them by applying circumlocution, paraphrasing, or finding a metaphrase (one-for-one) that captures the fullest sense of the original words, even when there is no direct equivalent. A so-called untranslatable word actually infers that 'Culture A' uses a word that either does not exist in or is not used by 'Culture B.' There is no such thing as a purely untranslatable word. Yet, when we see or hear the word untranslatable, most of us, linguists and non-linguists alike, for the most part know what the word means. With the exception of the word “non-equivalent,” there is no direct word in linguistics terminology for untranslatable, perhaps because linguists recognize the uniqueness of every one of the world's 6,000 languages, knowing each brings a cornucopia of tasty verbiage to the language table. And that diverse collection of words is a reflection of culture, nature and insight of respective speech communities.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that nature and culture are intrinsic parts of language, pointing out that it is impossible to express ideas without language while concluding that all language is cultural. The distinctive cultural features of the people who speak a certain language actually help distinguish one language from other languages. What distinguishes one language from another is the uniqueness of vocabulary, grammar, syntax, phonology, morphology and other unique features such as taboo practices of language avoidance. From a sociolinguistic standpoint, it is the unique vocabulary that sets languages apart, the perspective that tells us about the culture or life's view of those who use the language. The human experience is unique, refined further via specific cultures, so that translation of languages used in various cultures cannot be rendered seamlessly in direct word-for-word manner.
Although an understatement, there is a very basic premise that language is intimately related to culture, and culture is intimately related to language. Yet, despite common concepts in the thousands of languages, the numerous cultures in the world have many concepts that do not relate to languages of other cultures. There are many words used in each of the world's approximately 6,000 languages to describe life, social practices, and nature that simply do not have precise equivalents in other languages. This is the beauty of language!
Over the past century or so, linguists either have agreed or disagreed on the belief that the language we speak determines, to a degree, our perception of the world. The conflicting linguistic beliefs between language being a product of a specific culture and language being innate or preprogrammed have been at the heart of contrast between the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Chomskyan theory. The former hypothesis maintains that language is a decisive factor in forming our views of the world because it provides speakers with aspects of language that predispose them to perceive their environment in certain patterns. The latter posits that language is predisposed in individuals through universal principles. (Visson).
According to anthropologist Edward Hall,
“no two languages are alike... some are so dissimilar... that they force the speaker into two different versions of reality.” (Edward Hall, The Silent Language, 1981).
To the beholder of language and reality, it is important to recognize there are not always metaphrases between two or more languages as influenced by the cultures of those languages. Understanding that some words in one language do not equate directly in another means the beholder is in a better position to more fully understand the culture. What distinguishes one language from another is the unique treasure of words that sets it apart from other languages (and cultures) in so many ways. Those who seek the keys to transcend linguistic and cultural barriers fully understand that
“translation means not only the interaction of languages, but the interaction of cultures.” (Visson).
It is risky to generalize about cultures by inferring cultural characteristics from untranslatable words. One cannot conclude simply that because the speakers of a language have an untranslatable word describing some aspect of life, that view of life is unique only to that culture. For example, speakers of Yiddish use the untranslatable word nakhes to describe the pleasure derived from the intense pride on the accomplishments of a loved one. The English word “pride” just does not exude the full feeling of nakhes. This does not mean Yiddish speakers, however, are the only ones in the world who have such feelings.
Other cultures might feel it and relate to it, but not have a distinct word for it. And, just because the Russians have a word encompassing slovenliness, promiscuity, vulgarity, drunkenness, laziness, bad choices as captured in one word – пошлость (poshlost') – does not mean the Russians are the only culture in the world that has individuals who practice those less than desirable traits which the Russians wrap up into one word.
We have all noticed the little ring of condensation left on a tabletop from the bottom of a cold drink. But leave it to the Italians to create the word culaccino to refer to it!
Lucy Greaves in The Guardian, cites 積ん読 (tsundoku), the Japanese word for
“the act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically allowing it to pile up together with other such unread books.”
Non-speakers of Japanese should not conclude that the Japanese are the only culture that does this. (Greaves). Representatives of other cultures certainly have done this. Having developed in different contexts and along different paths historically, most languages reflect unique tidbits of culture inherent in their vocabularies. That languages impart cultural subtleties or provide glimpses through little windows of thought and life is what makes each of the world's languages richly distinct in their own right. And it is fascinating to discover new ideas from these words. Such 'untranslatables' compel us to view a small piece of the world, as profound or minor as it may be, through a different lens.
In teaching foreign languages, it is important to encourage students to “step outside” their native language and avoid the temptation of rendering everything from the language being learned into their native language. Learning unique vocabulary and grammatical forms without bringing everything back to the foundation (i.e., native) language means students undergo a paradigm shift that enables them to achieve a more natural feel for the language (and culture) being learned.
Take grammatical forms, for example. In Russian there is no direct word for “to have.” To say 'I have a book' – У меня есть книга (U menya yest' kniga) – in word-for-word translation means, 'By me is book.' And, in Irish (also called Gaeilge or Irish Gaelic), there are no words for “yes” or “no.” In questions requiring a “yes” or “no” answer, one simply repeats the verb either affirmatively or negatively. Take the example, 'Do you understand? I understand (Yes), or I do not understand (No).' In Irish this construction becomes, An dtuigeann tú? Tuigim. Ní thuigim. Thus, in response to 'Do you understand?' (An dtuigeann tú?) The words “yes” or “no” are not used. Instead, in Irish one says 'I understand' (Tuigim) = 'yes,' or 'I do not understand' (Ní thuigim) = 'no.' And, it is so with vocabulary uniqueness as well.
In addition to distinct grammatical forms in languages, vocabulary opens up a world of interesting perspectives. As languages evolved over thousands of years, their vocabularies reflected two major categories – one, labels primarily for physical objects such as trees, rivers, mountains, birds, animals, and common observable activities such as run, walk, work, read, eat, drink, speak; and two, abstract concepts for senses, feelings, or emotions such as the English word petrichor 'the pleasant, earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry soil,' the Portuguese saudade 'intense longing' or the German Schadenfreude 'joy at someone else's misfortune.' Thus, it is easier to translate a word that represents a cultural convention (i.e., easily identifiable object or routine action) common in multiple cultures than it is to fully and adequately translate a word that represents an abstract concept, perhaps one not known in another culture.
The seventeenth century English philosopher, John Locke, believed that
“in the realm of abstract notions, each language is allowed to carve up its own concepts – 'specific ideas' – in its own way.” (Deutscher).
Furthermore, in 1690 Locke wrote about concepts in language in his Essay concerning Human Understanding, referring to
“the great store of words in one language which have not any that answer them in another.”
These are the so-called untranslatables!
Most speakers have a worldview influenced by and through their native language. Although many represent words few non-native speakers will master in the fullest sense, untranslatables enable us to see the world from a different perspective, through a different lens. There are many non-equivalents that represent unique, rich, even powerful ideas in the culture in which they are used. Such words have the power to make us see the world from a unique angle and to add a new dimension to our own Weltanschauung – view of the world.
For thousands of years speakers of languages have been creating words that have subtleties and various shades of meaning that reflect a crystallized view of their immediate “world.” One aspect of such words involves the belief that people of certain regions develop many terms with dozens of slightly different meanings that correspond to their distinct environment, culture, or climate.
Hoax-seeking linguists, however, love to refute the notion that some languages have multiple words for prominent aspects of a culture, such as the Inuit people from the Arctic having many words for snow. They say these types of words simply do not exist or that it depends on how one applies the meanings. After all, in English there are such words as snow, frost, flurries, sleet, and ice. But, there are dozens of single words in Sami, a member of the Finno-Ugric group of the Uralic language family spoken in Arctic regions of Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia, that reflect conditions of snow, consistencies of snow, layers of snow, and tracks in the snow.
Consider, for example:
to name only a few in Inari Sami. (Dorren).
At the southern side of the globe, there is Shona, a Bantu language spoken mainly in Zimbabwe where walking is a major part of the lifestyle to the extent the language has multiple words for locomotion that require more than one word to describe. Take the examples of:
to name a few. (Comrie, et al.)
Do these reflect perspectives of people whose environment influences their language? Surely speakers of Shona care less whether their cultural needs for many 'walking' words represent a hoax or myth about their language. And probably, neither do Sami speakers.
There are innumerable words in the world's languages that have been conceived to represent specific aspects of individual cultures; words that do not necessarily exist in other languages. These words reflect what is important in their life because, whether consciously or not, they chose that word to be a part of their vocabulary. The world's languages and cultures are tremendously rich in viewing life from a different angle.
From the joy of being alone in the woods to the glitter of light through trees
Among the dozens of living American Indian languages, there are many words that relate to nature. One example is shima from Navajo which is the belief in 'Earth as mother' so the actual mother of humankind conjures the notion the Earth is alive and, hence, must be respected. The seasons have distinct words in most languages that can be translated using one-for-one correspondence. Two interesting distinctions that further define the seasons come from Lithuanian in rudenėja which means the beginning of autumn as manifested in nature (Dorren) and from Japanese 凩 / 木枯し (kogarashi) referring to the cold wind that reminds us winter is coming.
There are untranslatables in some languages that take simple words from nature – sun, moon, wind, rain – to a new dimension. The word 木漏れ日 (komorebi) in Japanese captures in one word the sunlight filtering and glittering through the leaves of trees. Maltese, a sister language of Arabic spoken on the island of Malta, has ixxemmex which means 'to bask in the sunshine just for the sake of enjoying the lovely weather.' (Dorren)
The moon's reflection on water has a distinct word in Turkish – yakamoz – yet takes on an added feature in Swedish mångata, literally, “moon road” – the road-like reflection that appears when the moon shines on the water. In Greek there is one word, psithirisma, for the sound of wind whispering through the leaves of trees. The Dutch have a word, uitwaaien, to walk in the wind for fun, whereas the Norwegians celebrate through utepils, drinking beer outside when the weather at long last gets nice.
According to John Spacey in Japan Talk, the Japanese language has many words to describe rain, including 緑雨 (ryokū) 'early summer rain,' 十雨 (jūu) 'refreshing rain once in ten days,' 恵雨 (keiu) 'welcome rain,' and 夕立 (yūdachi) 'sudden evening rain.'
In Hawaiian the word pakalaki literally means 'raindrops on luck' and is used referring to 'bad luck.' Finally, the German word Waldeinsamkeit 'being alone in the woods and feeling connected to nature' is comparable to the Japanese word, shinrinyoku.
From perseverance against adversity to working things out
Ubuntu is perhaps one of the most simply constructed yet most powerful words in the untranslatables collection. From the Bantu languages group known as Nguni which includes Xhosa and Zulu, ubuntu is an old word first noted in the 19th century and brought forth in the 20th century through the writings of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, social rights activist and Anglican bishop of South Africa. It is roughly translated as 'personhood' or 'human kindness,' encompassing decency, humility in humanity, self- assurance manifested in friendliness, caring and compassion. In Xhosa, the word is built upon the basic root -ntu which means 'person' and ubu- the noun class for uncountable or unquantifiable concepts. Ubuntu – a simple word – encourages mankind to accept we are all a part of a greater whole and that we should maintain an open-heartedness in an interconnected world as we go through our daily lives.
Though not as deeply implied at ubuntu, the Turkish word gönül, translated as 'heart,' has deeper more positive meaning than its one-word translation renders. Drawing upon inner self and energy, through gönül, all hearts are united as everyone wishes the best for each person. In line with these are the Romanian word omenie and the comparable word mensch, from Yiddish, both meaning a person of integrity and honor, one who demonstrates the virtue of being fully human. A real mensch is someone who always does the right thing. Latin gives us the word gravitas, literally 'heaviness,' indicating the presence a person exudes in such traits as seriousness, solemnity, or profound character. Speakers of Chinese use the word 面子 (miànzi) for 'face,' implying respectability or inner dignity. Connoting 'tranquil,' the Japanese word 侘び寂び (wabi-sabi) speaks to the modest and humble ability to find beauty in otherwise imperfections such as wrinkles on someone's aging face or cracks on a wall.
As with the range of colors and hues on an artist's palette, so too, is the range of vocabulary with its myriad variations, some of which are ever so slight in difference. In the realm of words for the human spirit, the words soul, dedication and perseverance are prominent. Anyone who has lived in Russia or has studied Russia's tremendously rich and celebrated history can relate to the word душа (dusha). Look for dusha in any dictionary of the Russian language and you typically will see 'soul' as the primary definition. Dusha is indeed 'soul,' but in the context of Russia, it captures soul with psyche, and the spiritual, moral, emotional, and heartfelt core of a country and people that evokes a complex and turbulent, yet rich history.
The Greeks have the word meraki which means doing something with soul, compassion or dedication, whether it is work, community, hobbies, or friendships. It would be a challenge to find a word in any world language that captures the combined meanings of soul, dedication and perseverance more than the Finnish word sisu. Roman Schatz, in From Finland with Love (Suomesta, rakkaudella), states that “sisu is about being tough not flexible. It means to never give up, to find more energy as the situation turns more desperate, to become stronger as the odds get worse.” Sisu involves the proud refusal to give up, exceeding mental and physical capacity, perseverance in the face of extreme adversity. It has a powerful and sacred status in Finnish culture. It's how the Finns survived World War II.
Human interactions may be viewed from many different perspectives. Take the basic Indonesian concept of rojong, for example, which means 'the commitment of a group of people cooperatively working to complete a common goal' or Belarusian Талака (talaka) which means 'volunteering to support an activity that benefits a group or neighborhood.' There are numerous words that relate to the interactions of humans in simple activities of life. Hawaiian has the word kūkahakahe that means 'to engage in pleasant conversation.' In Spanish, sobremesa literally means “on the table” and it refers to the conversations people have around the table after completing a meal – it is the basic art of conversation. In terms of interactions, the Irish have a word that shows they prefer not to remain stationary, choosing instead to go from house to house, in bothántaíocht, from the Irish word bothán, meaning 'hut' or 'cabin.' Bothántaíocht refers to the practice of going from house to house to socialize or gossip.
The practice of 根回し (nemawashi) in Japan involves companies or organizations checking on the views of everyone in the organization before making a decision. Corporate democracy? The Hawaiian word ho'oponopono refers to a proactive way of solving problems by interaction. In Hawaiian, the prefix hoʻo is added to the root of a word to signify 'making it happen.' Pono means 'morality, duty, goodness.' Through reduplication, a technique applied prolifically in Hawaiian, pono + pono becomes ponopono 'to correct, restore balance within oneself or within a family.' The term hoʻoponopono means 'talking it out' where all parties in a dispute go into a room, talk it out, and remain there until an agreement is reached. Hawaiian language and culture focuses on family drawing from ʻohana, literally 'family' from the word for taro root (an ancient Hawaiian food staple) meaning “we all come from the same root.” ʻOhana carries a broader sense that everyone in the family takes care of the family, including relatives, no matter what expense is required in time, effort or resources.
There are words for human interactions, however, that do not always culminate in a positive outcome. The word ilunga in Tshiluba language of the Republic of Congo is considered by some translators to be the most untranslatable word in the world. (Moore) Ilunga means when a person forgives the first transgression, tolerates a second one, but reacts adversely, even violently, to the third transgression. In Kilivila language in New Guinea, mokita is the truth that everyone knows but no one has the courage to admit openly to it. On the more positive side there is mamihlapinatapei (Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego) which refers to a look shared by two people sitting in silence who acknowledge each other, thinking and wishing the same thing, but each is reluctant to initiate what each of them wants. From Arabic comes تراض (Taarradhin), a positive solution for everyone involved, a “win-win” solution in which no one loses face.
From a relaxing stroll to a frenzied bash to the beauty of aging
A few languages have a word for an individual's or group's view of life, i.e., “view of the world,” notably German Weltanschauung and Russian мировоззрение (mirovozzrenie). An aspect of life and culture to the Navajo (Diné) is found in the word hozh'q, based on 'beauty of life as seen and created by a person,' (Moore) achieving balance and harmony in life through order, happiness, health, and well-being. 气 [氣] (qì) in Mandarin, basically refers to 'life' or 'energy,' but relates to a view of Chinese traditional medicine that encompasses life through health, longevity, strength, sex, friendships, family, work, and play.
From Vedic tradition comes the Sanskrit word धर्म (dharma), literally 'to hold or maintain,' translated in one word as 'duty,' refers to a key principle of cosmic order in life. A tenet of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism – dharma in one word involves an overall sense of duties, rights, laws, conduct, order, virtues, and more. When one's world is out of harmony and the hectic pace of life seemingly calls for a new way of living, speakers of Hopi have the word koyaanisqatsi – 'Life out of balance' – to refer to it. (Moore, Rheingold)
From Confucian “Doctrine of the Mean,” the Mandarin word 中庸 (zhōngyōng) from zhōng 'middle' and yōng 'ordinary,' captures a sense of moderation, common sense, compromise, middle-of-the-road, equilibrium as a way to perfect oneself. Zhongyong is described as an “unwobbling pivot” in the sense that one maintains balance and harmony by mindfully achieving a state of constant equilibrium. This word definitely is a translation challenge to capture its full meaning in one or two words. In a somewhat less philosophical and spiritual sense, the Swedish word lagom, translated as 'just right' falls somewhere between success and failure, not too hot and not too cold, not too big and not too small – just right. Swedish also takes a positive view of life in the word livbejakela, from liv 'life' and bejakelse 'saying yes'. Bejakela means 'enthusiastic,' 'optimistic,' or 'joyful attitude' as a positive affirmation of life, the ability to agree with life. (Moore)
The Jewish 'way of living' from a Yiddish perspective is called Yiddishkeyt 'Yiddishness' which has a much deeper meaning than words can describe. Yiddishkeyt comprises religious beliefs, customs, chutzpah (extreme nerve), nakhes (pride), life in the shtetl, the kvetch 'complaining.' klole 'curse,' weddings, and life's everyday struggles and joys. According to a former fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, Pauline Katz,
“Just saying the words is not enough... you need to know what it is you are celebrating (in the words reflecting Jewish life).”
A 19th century Russian literary work gave rise to the somewhat obscure term обломовщина (oblomovshchina) 'Oblomovness' meaning extreme ennui. The word oblomovshchina in Russian stems directly from the novel by Russian writer Ivan Goncharov whose main character Ilya Ilyich Oblomov simply vegetated by staying in bed or lying around the house, incapable of making decisions of any kind.
Individual aspects of life find their way into the vocabularies of languages for which there is a need to express specific acts that are a part of life, even if those acts are limited to various cultures. Some Spanish-speaking cultures use the word paseo meaning a slow stroll after the evening meal. German speakers have a word for the sense of relaxation and comfort at the end of the working day, and they call it Feierabend, literally, 'evening celebration.' German also has a unique word – Rausch – to refer to a frenzied bout of wild drunkenness. Indonesian has the word kekau to describe the sensation of awakening from a nightmare. And, Yiddish has the peculiar word aftselakhis which is the impulse to do what someone does not want you to do, but you do it anyway, especially to spitefully upset the person. The word tabbekvote in Norwegian, often used to describe unruly children who escape repercussions, means the 'number of blunders someone can make before there are any consequences.'
While some languages and cultures do not celebrate the twilight of life, some languages do. Take verkënnen, for example. From the Luxembourgish language, the national language of Luxembourg, verkënnen means to gradually experience the effects of old age in body and mind. (Dorren) Japanese, meanwhile, has shibui (shibui) referring to the beauty of aging, factoring in the strong sensory associations or connections of memory, time, places, senses of smell, taste, or sounds. Hearing a song, smelling a particular fragrance from earlier times, that's shibui. The language also has a word to describe accepting what life offers – しょうがない (shōganai) – it is fate, it cannot be helped, it is out of your control, accept it.
The Hebrew word stam (pronounced “Shtam”) is interesting in its usage to simply sum up something unspecified or the inexplicable in life. Stam means 'for no reason' or 'because it's there.' A parent's response to a child's question might come with a shrug of the shoulders and the simple reply, stam.
From melancholy to nervousness to “all is right with the world”
There is a broad group of terms in various languages that relate to all sorts of feelings, from negative to overall joy and happiness. Starting with feelings of unease, Japanese gives us the word 横飯 (yokomeshi) from meshi 'boiled rice' and yoko 'horizontal' to mean 'meal eaten sideways.' Referring to Japanese writing which is often written vertically, whereas most languages are written horizontally, yokomeshi is used to describe the stress induced by speaking a foreign language. (Moore)
For overall melancholy, anguish, pangs depression, ennui, boredom, weariness, yearning, and other such feelings all wrapped up in one word, there is the Russian word тоска (toska). (Gogolitsyna) In German there is a word for the intense feeling of nervousness resulting from oppression from a boss, spouse, or other person who constantly imposes criticism to the point you actually make more mistakes in what you are doing. That word is fisselig.
A well-known word from German that has been borrowed into some languages (e.g., English) is Schadenfreude, the joy one feels at someone else's misfortune, pain, failure, or bad luck. When something bad has happened, someone is in pain, or when expressing sympathy, speakers of Swedish might say uffda. The word dépaysement from French connotes the sense of disorientation that often comes when being away from your home country and not necessarily encompassing homesickness completely.
If you have ever had that sinking feeling of not being able to recall a person's name or to recognize someone you met before, especially when introductions are being made, that feeling is called tartle in Scots. In the Rapanui language spoken on Easter Island, there is anga-anga, a noun that refers to a feeling one is being gossiped about, possibly arising from one's own sense of guilt. (Rheingold) One of many unique words from Japanese is 残心 (zanshin) which captures the feeling of relaxed mental alertness in the face of danger. (Rheingold)
Untranslatables describing positive feelings have several excellent examples. Both Czech and Greek have words meaning carefree, relaxed enjoyment, and eased state of mind – pohoda and kefi, respectively. Merak in Serbian implies the sense of joy by doing simple activities. The Sanskrit word rasa relates to the transcendental feeling evoked by a work of art, the feeling of being taken to another time and place. Sayang, from Tagalog, encompasses the gamut of feeling from deep love, compassion, empathy, longing, and sadness at something lost. Considered the ultimate goal on the path of Buddhism, nirvana (Sanskrit and a loanword in multiple languages) is the transcendental state of perfect happiness, including no suffering or desire.
Breton, a Celtic language of some 200,000 speakers in northwest France, has an interesting word, startijenn, which refers to the kick of energy one gets, such as from chocolate, a strong cup of coffee or caffeine-laden drink. Finally, in reference to the previous mention of German Gemütlichkeit and Dutch gezelligheid – coziness, nice, feeling mellow – there are comparable examples in koselighet (Norwegian), vilhtylisyys (Finnish), douillet (French).
From fear of not finding love to powerful enduring love
Single words for love carry unique shades of perspective as well. Literally, 'door-shutting panic,' the German Torschlusspanik is the sense of angst felt by unwed females who see time closing the door on their chances to be married and have a family. This term further applies to the “fear of missing out” on any opportunity such as travel, job, adventure, or relationship because the age-clock is ticking. The French word retrouvailles captures the feeling of joy you get when you are reunited with loved ones. Cafuné, in Brazilian Portuguese, is the act of passionately running fingers through a loved one's hair. In a morose sense, the Arabic يقبرني (ya'aburnee), literally, 'you bury me' means the hope that a loved one will outlive you so that you will be spared the pain of living life without that person.
In Korean the word jung means the love in a relationship that is much stronger than romantic love. Jung conjures up the feeling of love that will always endure no matter how that love is challenged. No description of love and untranslatables would be complete without the Hawaiian word aloha. The word's etymology is interesting, coming from alo 'sharing, in the present,' oha 'joyous affection, sharing' and ha 'breath' referring to the interconnectedness of the ancient Hawaiian culture through sharing of breath. Encompassing peace, love, compassion, grace, charity, sympathy, gentle sharing, hello, good-bye, and many more definitions, aloha is a classic example of a word that cannot be translated simply using one word.
From one who constantly asks questions to one open to foreigners
All cultures have specific words for individuals who engage in common practices associated with life. There are some unique perspectives offered via untranslatables, however. Children at certain ages typically ask many, often meaningless, questions. From the Russian word почему (pochemu), meaning 'why?' the child who constantly asks questions is called a почемучка (pochemuchka). Russian also employs the word белоручка (beloruchka) referring to a person with white hands, someone who avoids rough or dirty work. There is a word in Spanish, pícaro, to describe a person, often found in literature, who is smart, clever, bold, daring, astute, mischievous, cunning, naughty, rogue, bohemian – a renaissance man and “bad boy” all rolled up in one word.
Italian has attacabottoni 'buttonholes' to mean a person who captures and bores the hell out of you with sad stories about his woes. A pantofolaio from pantofole 'slippers' in Italian is a lazy person who rarely goes outside and prefers to vegetate in the house wearing slippers. Someone who sets out on projects at random without a plan is called a bricoleur in French. This practice is described in American English as “flying by the seat of your pants” or the popular “winging it.” A person who is engrossed with trivial details or minutiae is called a Korinthenkacker in German, literally, 'a person who shits raisins.' An interesting side of life is seen in the Slovene word vrtíčkar – a person who has a garden (or hobby) that serves as a pretense to cover for drinking and socializing with friends. How creative!
The Hebrew word צבר (tzabar / sabra) is a slang term based on the word for a prickly 'cactus' and is used to describe any Israeli Jew born in Israel. Like the tenacious, thorny plant in the desert, the Sabra speaks Hebrew as a native language and has participated in various activities to defend the country. The Yiddish word nebbish a 'poor thing' comes from Hebrew nebekh meaning 'poor, pitiful thing.'
Japanese, a language that is rich with untranslatables, naturally has words describing people. Literally 'education mama,' 教育ママ (kyōiku mama) is not a complimentary term. It refers to a mother who pushes her children into academic excellence no matter the cost in time, effort, toil. On the lighter sides comes バックシャン (bakku-shan) which is used to describe a woman who looks great from behind but unattractive from the front. Finally, a 国際人 (kokusaijin), literally 'international person,' refers to Japanese people who have an innate ability to show openness to foreigners, whether demonstrating an ability to speak foreign languages or not.
From open hospitality to growing ill from too much sweetness
An important aspect common in various cultures around the globe is the practice of hospitality. While some languages do not have a specific word other than “hospitality,” two notable examples are Russian and Farsi. The Russian word хлебосольство (khlebosol'stvo) literally means 'bread and salt,' but with a sense of welcoming, open sharing of home, food, drink, conversation, and sometimes song.
In Persian culture, the host always offers food and drink to visitors. تعارف (Ta'arof) in Farsi refers to the act of offering and accepting what is offered. It is ta'arof to accept the food and drink offered, even if it is not desired. In Dutch, uitbuiken – from uit 'out' and buik 'stomach' – means to let your stomach out between meals, enjoy yourself around a table. Spanish has the delightfully sickening word empalagar to become ill from eating something too sweet, implying eating too much of it.
Most cultures do not have specific words to describe the unusual cravings or longings for certain foods women often sense when they are pregnant, but Sanskrit and Turkish do. They are दोहद (dohada - Sanskrit) and aşermek (Turkish). An interesting phenomenon involving food is captured in the Hungarian word madárlátta, which is used to refer to food taken on a hike or a picnic that is brought back home uneaten. It literally means 'bird-seen,' since no one ate it, perhaps only the birds saw it in the backpack or basket.
There are several examples included here that go beyond the categories addressed above. The Icelandic concept of álfreka involves a Norse curse from the word álfar 'hill-dwelling creatures.' The expression ganga álfrek means 'driving away the elves' but is used to imply 'relieving oneself' – in a country where elves are taken seriously, the term álfreka means through the act of eliminating bodily waste, the supernatural earth spirits are driven away, leaving the ground spiritually dead. (Moore)
Several other unique words come from German. A classic example of a word that is very difficult to translate is Gestalt, literally 'form, shape.' Gestalt carries so many meanings, mainly reflecting holism whereby something made of many parts is viewed as a whole and not a collection of its parts. Gestalt therapy, for instance, applies to an interpersonal approach of being in the “here and the now.” The word Schnappszahl refers to patterns in numbers such as a date 01-01-01, a birthday 6-6-99, or phone number 737-373-7373.
Whether you know the word or not, most of us have experienced the phenomenon of an Ohrwurm 'ear worm' – a tune that keeps playing in your head, sometimes annoyingly for days. Schlimmbesserung 'bad improvement' refers to a supposed improvement that winds up making things worse. Despite your car running well, you decide to have a mechanic do a tune-up only to make it run more poorly – that's Schlimmbesserung. 'Dragon fodder' or Drachenfutter is the offering to wives by husbands who have made bad choices and wish to tame the fire-breathing dragon with gifts when they return home.
In a related sense, there are the Slovene word zríhtati and the Polish word załatwić both of which literally mean 'to do a cash job' – to circumvent officials by knowing someone; using friends, family, or connections to apply bribery, charm, or flattery to get desired end results. Another word from Polish is fucha which means inappropriately using company time and resources for your own ends. (Rheingold)
Finishing on a whimsical note, the Indonesian word jayus means a joke that is not funny and one that is told so poorly that those listening to the joke cannot help but laugh.
Assemblages of letters, diacritics, symbols, sounds, etymologies, morphemes, functions – perhaps more important, many carry perspectives about life we all might do well embracing, at least acknowledging, no matter from what culture they originated. Dictionary definitions do not capture the true sense of the meanings of many so-called “untranslatables,” at least in one-for-one translations. Such words have the power to change the way you see the world, and possibly, yourself. By learning the true meaning behind some unique words from a variety of languages, you very well might alter your own Weltanschauung.
For further reading: See the sources that follow for additional examples of untranslatable words and their fascinating meanings.
Comrie, B., Matthews, S., Polinsky, M. The Atlas of Languages. Quarto Publishing, London, 1999
Deutscher, Guy. Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. Holt & Company, New York. 2010.
Dorren, Gaston. Lingo. Profile Books. London. 2015.
Gogolitsyna, Natalia. Untranslatable 93 Russian Words. Russian Information Services, Inc. Montpelier, VT. 2008
Greaves, Lucy. 'Review: The Back Page: Is any word untranslatable?' The Guardian. February 1, 2014.
Moore, Christopher J. In Other Words. Walker & company, New York. 2004
Rheingold, Howard. They Have a Word for It. Sarabande Books, Louisville, Kentucky. 2000
Sterbenz, Christina. '9 Incredibly Useful Russian Words with No English Equivalent.' Business Insider. April 18, 2014.
Visson, Lynn. What Mean? Where Russians Go Wrong In English. Hippocrene Books, Inc. New York. 2013.
Charles A. Kauffman is an adjunct professor of Indo-European and World Languages courses within the English & Humanities Department at York College of Pennsylvania, United States. He is a retired U.S. Government linguist who worked with multiple languages for over 30 years. He also teaches Russian, German and Italian and is a frequent speaker on topics relating to language and culture.
Contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org (York College of Pennsylvania)
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