Translation of the "untranslatable"

Continuing the discussion from Ten untranslatable words:

agreed on saudade, and i would even promote “wistfulness” as a parallel noun that english has to offer to express the idea of saudade.

we are far too good at communication to throw up our hands at the first whiff of failure to provide perfect 1:1 translation; as you related, interpretation through a phrase here or there is nothing to sneeze at.

@maxp made a really good point when he said,

You seem to have redefined “translatable” to include “grammatically equivalent”

The original “untranslatable” argument seems to have stemmed from a search for English synonyms that could match the list’s foreign words. Most of the words do require a short explanation, but not all. These few have a near direct translation.

“Glaswen” requires two words.
It describes a “blue smile”, but in English you might say it’s a “sardonic smile”.

“Komorebi” is “dappled” sunlight.
Don’t believe me? Run a google image search for “dappled sunlight”.

“Luftmensch” is directly translatable to English.
It has a single-word English synonym: “daydreamer”.


The Wikipedia article Untranslatability and also its Talk page go into the issues raised in the comment thread. It mentions the point I tried to make that translatability is a continuum with nothing at the extremes:

Terms are, however, neither exclusively translatable nor exclusively untranslatable; rather, the degree of difficulty of translation depends on their nature, as well as on the translator’s knowledge of the languages in question.

That seems to have struck some people as a pedantic quibble, but I think there’s something divisive about saying that Language Z has a term that simply cannot be expressed in English. That the Ztopians are so alien in their thinking that we can’t hope to understand them. I would agree that translation can be difficult, but how could anything be truly untranslatable?

I think this language myth belongs next to “Eskimos have a hundred words for ‘snow.’”


The best ‘untranslatable’ words for me are ones like Schadenfreude. We are already familiar the emotion, but didn’t even realise the lack of a word to describe it adequately until we hear it. Learning the word opens up a new concept for us that we can now recognise more clearly. On the other hand, Lagom is interesting as although we have similar words or concepts (moderation, just the right amount, balance…), it’s a window into an important keystone of another culture that doesn’t hold as much significance in our own.

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