In many languages, it may not be possible to find a single word that precisely conveys the meaning of an expression found in another language. Across the world’s languages, there are countless feelings and thoughts that cannot be put into words. When a word or expression does not have an exact equivalent in the target language, we consider the words as untranslatable words. As a result, many expressions and emotions may get lost in translation. While this may not be new for translation services, as a business, you may not know how to deal with such untranslatable words and expressions. Should you look for the best alternative? Or should you trust that the original expression can be understood and accepted in a common context?
Now, let’s take a look at how this phenomenon occurs, some common examples, and what to do when encountering untranslatable words and expressions.
What Are Untranslatable Words?
Untranslatable words do not mean words that cannot be expressed in another language at all. The term “untranslatable” is used for words that do not have a direct equivalent or can’t be expressed with a single word in another language. Untranslatable words can arise from cultural, historical, or social differences between languages.
The German word “Waldeinsamkeit” is a good example of this. “Waldeinsamkeit” is formed by combining the words “Wald,” meaning forest, and “Einsamkeit,” meaning loneliness or solitude. While one can translate this word as “the loneliness of the forest,” such a translation may not fully capture all the emotional and aesthetic nuances of the expression. “Waldeinsamkeit” refers to the mystical, peaceful, introspective, and serene feeling one experiences when being alone in nature, especially in a forest, surrounded by its natural beauty and silence. This unique emotion may not have a direct equivalent in other languages, thus making it an untranslatable word.
Similarly, many untranslatable words found in different languages may describe unique emotions and concepts that cannot be fully conveyed with a single word in other languages.
Why Do Untranslatable Words Exist?
Words are not merely about definitions or descriptions; they convey much more about our experiences and lives. We use words to define our values, ideas, life experiences, relationships, and worldviews. The real issue arises when we consider how our thought patterns are shaped, considering factors such as geography, history, religion, culture, climate, and economy, which can influence how we perceive the world.
In a world with such diverse cultures and languages, it is entirely natural for there to be numerous words that do not translate between languages. The most common reason for words to be deemed untranslatable is due to cultural differences and nuances in language.
Examples of Untranslatable Words
Let’s make what we have been trying to explain from the beginning more understandable by supporting it with examples. Here are some untranslatable words in different languages spoken around the world:
In the Pyrenees region on the border between Spain and France, you might come across this word that describes the joy and happiness one feels when meeting an old friend again after a long absence.
Norwegians use this word to describe the act of sitting outdoors on a sunny day and enjoying a beer. This word is widely used in Scandinavian culture, and beer enthusiasts worldwide have borrowed it from Norwegian to describe the pleasure of having a beer outside in beautiful weather.
The Danish word “Hyggelig” refers to an extremely warm and intimate moment or thing. It describes a cozy and intimate experience spent with friends, under warm blankets, in a candlelit ambiance, accompanied by a bit of alcohol.
Similar words exist in German as “gemütlichkeit,” in Swedish as “gemytlig,” and in Norwegian as “hyggelig.” While these words evoke connotations of warmth, friendliness, and coziness, it is difficult to fully capture the essence of what “hyggelig” wants to convey.
The Dutch word “Gezelligheid,” similar to the Danish “hyggelig” and the German “gemütlichkeit,” describes a convivial, warm, cozy, and harmonious atmosphere when people are together. It describes the warmth of being together with loved ones or the joy of seeing a beloved friend after a long absence.
The Hindi word जिजीविषा (jijivisha) can be simply translated to “will to live” or “desire to live.” However, it encompasses much more than that; it expresses a strong and eternal desire to live or a passionate longing to live life with love and enthusiasm.
The Arabic word “يقبرني” (ya’aburnee) translates literally to “bury me.” However, the concept it represents goes far beyond that.
“يقبرني” (Ya’aburnee) is a way to express your hope that your loved one will outlive you because living without them would be unbearable. It is, in a way, a prayer or wish for someone whom you admire or love to have a longer life.
The German word “Waldeinsamkeit” translates literally to “forest solitude” or “the solitude of the forest.” However, beyond the literal translation, this word describes the experience of being alone and peaceful in the forest.
The word “Goya” in Urdu refers to the moment when a story or a work of art is portrayed in an extremely realistic and vivid manner. At this moment, it becomes challenging to distinguish between reality and fiction, and the fictional world temporarily becomes a reality.
“Mångata” is a Swedish word that refers to the reflection of the moon on water. It describes the illuminated path or line that appears on the water when the moon shines upon it.
“Mångata” is perceived as a magical natural phenomenon and is used to describe the romantic effect created by the moon’s reflection on the water’s surface, typically on the seashore or over a body of water.
The rhythmic Italian word formed from “attaccare” (to hold, attach) and “bottoni” (buttons), attaccabottoni describes a person, especially in the workplace, who endlessly regales you with their life’s every minute detail through never-ending stories.
Weltschmerz is a German word and can be translated as “world pain” or “world sorrow.” This word expresses the general sadness we feel when we perceive the world to be in a deplorable state.
“Saudade” is a Portuguese word that expresses the deep longing for something or someone who is no longer in your life. It is a bittersweet feeling of emptiness and conveys the idea that what you long for may never return.
The Chinese word “热闹” (ré nao) can be directly translated as “lively” or “bustling.” However, its true meaning goes beyond these adjectives. When a place or situation is “热闹”, it not only means it is fun and lively but also has a unique vibe that makes everyone want to be there.
A festival, street market, bar, club, or crowded party can be “热闹”. Additionally, a warm family dinner, a university class, or a pleasant meeting with friends can also be described as “热闹”.
The word “Iktsuarpok,” found in the Eskimo language, describes the feeling of someone constantly looking outside and becoming impatient while waiting for someone to come or for an event to happen.
The Russian word “тоска” (toska) can be directly translated as sadness or mournfulness. However, the word “тоска” (toska) contains many nuances. In a mild sense, it describes inner distress, a vague restlessness, or a tightening of the soul.
At its deepest level, it means experiencing great spiritual anguish without a specific cause.
“Sobremesa” is a Spanish word that refers to the time after lunch or dinner when those present at the table remain seated and continue to talk and socialize.
“木漏れ日” (Komorebi) is a Japanese word that refers to the sunlight filtering through the leaves of trees. It is used to emphasize the beauty of nature and the tranquility it brings.
The Tagalog noun “Kilig,” describes the feeling of butterflies in one’s stomach during a romantic moment.
The Yaghan word “Mamihlapinatapai” is used to describe the wordless and meaningful look shared between two people. In this look, both individuals want to initiate something, but they also feel reluctant to do so.
The hesitation experienced by both individuals in starting something and the mutual understanding conveyed through this look is precisely what this word captures.
What to Do with Untranslatable Words?
When translating from one language to another, translators may sometimes come across words for which they cannot find an appropriate alternative. While translators have been aware of the existence of such words and expressions for a long time, these untranslatable words can be the nightmare of any professional translator. However, good transcreation services know how to handle such challenges and guide the individual or business they serve in every way possible.
When faced with an untranslatable word, a skilled translator needs to be creative to convey the intended message correctly. For instance, they may consider using multiple words or phrases to convey the meaning of the untranslatable words or expressions. Alternatively, they might choose to describe the concept fully and comprehensively. Additionally, if they believe that a word-for-word translation would accurately reflect the meaning carried by the untranslatable word or expression, they may prefer that approach.
In cases where these approaches do not provide a satisfactory solution, translators may resort to word borrowing.