Ten untranslatable words


And every single one has a perfectly clear rendition in English right next to it. What definition of “untranslatable” are we working with here? - Yours, a qualified translator


I do not think that they have been translated. They have been described, perhaps even explained. But that’s not the same.


It’s nice that there’s an actual word for Mt. Toberead. :books:


In what way is it not the same?


BBC News - The world’s most difficult word to translate has been identified as “ilunga” from the Tshiluba language spoken in south-eastern DR Congo. It came top of a list drawn up in consultation with 1,000 linguists.

Ilunga means “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time”.



I think the words are untranslatable in the sense that there is no single word in English (for instance) that corresponds to the concept being expressed.

One or more of these words might wind up being borrowed into our language, but they will have to be introduced with a brief explanation. Schadenfreude is a good recent example.


I think ‘untranslateable’ in this context is hyperbole for ‘a word so specific in its meaning it needs several words in other languages to say the same thing’.

That said, even that’s not often true of the words in these lists. That ‘commuovere’ (Italian?) over there is ‘comover’ in Portuguese and I’ll bet something similar in half a dozen Latin-derived languages.

The Portuguese ‘saudade’ that’s often mentioned, though not this particular time, is suspiciously similar to ‘longing’. And so on. Lovely illustrations anyhow.


Sorry, but that’s not what translation is. Most words in most languages don’t have a perfect one-to-one correspondence. Hell, even two people speaking the same language don’t understand the same thing by the same code. Look up “intersubjectivity”.


What you said. (:

English has an (onomatopoeic) word for the sound of wind whispering through trees: psithurism. That’s got to be worth at least one komorebi.


I think the thing is that in translation, much of it is approximation. I can think of several words that fit the premise a lot better, but because they cover concepts that have no close analogue in English (or rather, in the cultures that speak english) they don’t have the flashy appeal of things that make people go “hey, cool word! we should steal it!” Like the word luftmensch, which I have not encountered before but if I take them at their word seems to find its approximate in the english ‘head in the clouds’, it’s an idea we can easily grasp. So i guess what the book seems to do is look at single words that don’t have single word analogues in english, but still can have the meaning translated.

In contrast, when I think of ‘untranslatable’ I think of things like virtus , the latin root of ‘virtue’ which does kind of cover that idea, but is often also translated as ‘courage’ which isn’t quite right either. It literally means ‘manliness’ which sometimes covers it but also misleads the reader into thinking about in terms of macho, or men, which…it’s not quite either, just as it’s not quite about the things that are the opposite of vices, which is how we’d understand it. It has this kind of broader and yet still not vague meaning that’s something like ‘quality in keeping with the highest natural purpose and aim of a thing’ with a reference to men and the natural highest purpose of men, but not exclusively.’ And the real bitch of it is that, so defined, the meaning changes a lot depending on the understanding of human nature. This is an absurdly simplified example, but Republican-era Romans would have seen the natural aim of man as earning glory and influence through public office. In Rome under Christianity, the natural purpose of man is assumed to be spirtual salvation (which is where a lot of our understanding of the word comes from). But the definition of the word in Latin hadn’t really changed for them, it was still understood as that ‘quality in keeping with the highest natural purpose and aim of the thing specified’, even though for us translators must take into account the when and the where and the who because the truer translation of what Cato meant might be ‘courage’ and Tertullian might be ‘righteousness’


A fair point. Perhaps the post should have been titled “Ten difficult-to-translate words”, though I suspect that would attract fewer clicks. The point is that these words take a lot more explanation and unpacking than, say, chien=dog.

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  1. Even common words can be deeply tied to their culture or can have subtle distinctions that are different in other languages. Bread is a pretty straightforward word to translate in most languages, but you aren’t necessarily talking about the same thing. Now try translating God.

  2. Some languages separate morphemes into different words, others combine them. George Bush said “One word sums up probably the responsibility of any Governor, and that one word is ‘to be prepared’.” People called him an idiot because he gave three words rather than one, but in another language it might be one (such as prepararse, although that doesn’t have quite the same meaning), because it’s just one concept. Languages such as German combine verb and noun phrases, while Chinese has many words with multiple characters without adding spaces between words. Did the Chinese translate computer (电脑)as one word or two (electric brain)? Is Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft really just one word because it doesn’t have any spaces?


Except most of them aren’t even difficult to translate. Luftmensch = Space cadet, or dreamer would do.
Mångada = Moon-road, which is completely assimilable into English without much need for explanation. English has been doing kennings for fucking ages.

I particularly like how after a long explanation of the word for a second refill, it is then completely unambiguously translated as a second refill and even given a playful translation as “threefill”. If you have spare capacity left over for word-play after translating a concept, the translation was not all that hard.

This is just another example of the tired old trope: “particularly charming or interesting word in other language” -> “untranslatable”.

If there was really an untranslatable word, you would get articles about how nobody really knows what the fuck this word means.


I’m reminded of the old joke that English has no word for “spaghetti” and is forced to use the Italian word instead.


I tend to agree that these words are manifestly translatable, as a translation has been given for each one.

That being said, I think there ARE words in some languages that are much closer to genuinely untranslatable into English (or other language X) in that there’s no word (or set of words) that can be easily dropped in as a functional replacement. I don’t know a lot of examples (I’m not a super language expert) but the ones that come to mind are mostly utility words. The examples I can think of off the top of my head are:

doch (German) (see http://german.about.com/library/weekly/aa010806b.htm)
tack (Swedish) (see http://everything2.com/title/Swedish%2C+in+one+word)

… both of which have a kind of overarching sense to them, but in terms of functional utility in the sentence, their meaning ends up being highly contextual. (I’ll let someone who’s more of an expert in the languages address their meanings in more detail.)

Even then, these words have clear translations in a given context for the most part. I’m not convinced there’s a word that exists that’s genuinely, purely untranslatable in a given context. But I’d love for people to propose examples.

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Might I suggest the perfectly cromulent word “epicaricacy”?

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Let me guess, Mr. Translator: you get paid by the word!

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I know a couple English words that are untranslatable. One is “listicle.” The other is “click-bait.” These two words can not be translated into ancient Aramaic or Inuit. Go ahead. Look them up.