Untranslatable words: in a class of their own.

Currently, hygge is probably one of the best-known words when it comes to terms that cannot be translated directly with a single corresponding word. These terms are classified as untranslatable because they simply do not exist in the other language. By the way, it should be said that this Danish philosophy of life has now even made it into the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. It’s no longer necessary to describe the term as homely cosiness or something along those lines.

But there are some expressions from other languages that are more challenging for translators. They demand excellent knowledge of the source language and the other culture. Many of these terms are so attractive that they eventually end up being incorporated into English because they sum up a concept that English doesn’t already have words for. A principle of linguistic inclusion. And why reinvent the wheel? Keen to find out more?

Here are a few wonderful words from all over the world for which there is simply no equivalent in many other languages.

Yakamoz – calling all romantics and moon worshippers

The evocative meaning of the Turkish word yakamoz is “the reflection of the moon on water”. In 2007, the Year of the Humanities, it was even voted the “most beautiful word in the world”. The Swedes can also sum up this poetic natural phenomenon in a single word: mångata. Other languages have to make do with a description.

Fredagsmys – out of your suit and into the weekend

This Swedish term, translated literally, means “the leisureliness of Friday”. The word is all about comfort, community and relaxation. You sit at home in a cosy atmosphere with friends or family, enjoy a cool beer or a crisp glass of wine and eat a few nibbles. There might not be a proper word for it in English but children and teenagers in England have come to know a similar feeling of cosiness through the 2000s: Saturday night, time to sit in front of the TV with mum and dad, lap up the sequins and the hot steps of professional dancers and their celebrity partners, following their fates through the autumn up to Christmas in “Strictly Coming Dancing”.

Uitwaaien – blowing away the cobwebs

This cute Dutch term translates literally as “blow away”. And now it’s obvious what it means even if you don’t speak Dutch, right? It means “taking a break to clear your head”. And that is something you can do on the Dutch coast during the holiday season: lekker uitwaaien aan zee en lange strandwandelingen maken (getting a breath of fresh air by the sea and taking long walks on the beach).

Jugaad – simply brilliant!

This term comes from Hindi and means something along the lines of “being able to improvise” or “having the ability to find solutions under difficult circumstances”. The term jugaad describes the way many Indians live: they don’t shy away from adverse circumstances – and it’s worth remembering at this point that two thirds of Indians live in poverty – or allow their positive attitude to be taken away from them. Remarkably, they don’t just react to what is missing from their life but see the apparent shortage or restriction as an opportunity. This important nuance should certainly be taken into consideration in any decent translation.

Mamihlapinatapai – at a loss for words

Absolutely impossible to pronounce and, depending on the context, romantically tragic: mamihlapinatapai. The complex translation for this word is: “A look that without words is shared by two people who want to initiate something that they both desire but that neither will start” or “looking at each other hoping that the other will offer to do something which both parties desire but are unwilling to do”. This term, which literally describes how two people are at a loss for words, comes from the language of the Yagan, the indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego. Unfortunately, the language is more or less classed as being extinct. But mamihlapinatapai made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the “most succinct word”.

Pochemuchka – why, what for?

We probably all know someone who wants to know the far end of every story. Depending on your patience, you would refer to this person in Russian as a pochemuchka while either winking or rolling your eyes up to the ceiling. The closest you are likely to get in English would be to call this person “extremely inquisitive” or perhaps even a “busybody”. Auf gut Schweizerdeutsch heisst das wohl Tüpflischiesser.

Cercle vertueux – the virtuous circle!

In some languages, the phenomenon of the vicious circle is a familiar one. But French and English have the opposite at the ready with the term virtuous circle. The Collins online dictionary describes a vicious circle as “a problem or difficult situation that has the effect of creating new problems which then cause the original problem or situation to occur again”. And a virtuous circle is the same phenomenon just in a positive sense. We know which one we prefer!

Fernweh – last stop: longing

It would seem that it’s only German speakers who are troubled by this longing for a distant place. Or at least there’s no direct translation for the German word in other languages. Interestingly, English speakers might offer you another German word for the term as a synonym: wanderlust. Most languages do, however, have a way of expressing a longing for home – homesickness. The French have a wonderful word for a related notion: dépaysement refers to the feeling of being a foreigner when you’re not in your own country. This can of course be a positive feeling, but, depending on the mood, can at times give you a sense of disorientation.

Here are a few other terms in German that defy translation: Weltschmerz, Zeitgeist, Fingerspitzengefühl, Kummerspeck, Torschlusspanik, Schnapsidee.

Ilunga – things are getting complicated!

These six letters are enough to have any translator working up a sweat. This term from Bantu, which is used in East Africa, means the following: an ilunga is “someone who will forgive the first time they are hurt and will put up with it a second time but won’t be so patient or forgiving the third time it happens”.

Gluggavedur – from a comfortable distance

This word is Icelandic and literally means “window weather”. And of course what they mean is “weather that is fantastic to look at through a window but is not the kind of weather you would want to go out in”. Perhaps when the rain is lashing against the window, leaving countless droplets behind on the glass, or when impressive lightning formations light up the sky or even when a snowstorm hits. A synonym would be “stay-under-the-covers” weather. And that’s something we’re all familiar with.

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