English words that don't travel well
May 3, 2010 12:34 PM   Subscribe

We've asked about "untranslatable words" that "do not exist in the English language" or at least lack a "close English equivalent." But what are the words in English that defy easy translation?

I'm not looking for idiomatic expressions, mind. I'm interested in the sort of word that compresses so many associations, or is so eccentrically specific, that only a great cloud of synonyms could suggest its meaning in another language.
posted by Iridic to Writing & Language (70 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if this is the sort of thing you have in mind, but much of the vocabulary of electronics technology is English regardless of the language being spoken. We invented a whole bunch of new objects in the last century, and someone had to make up words to describe them as they happened. That being accomplished, it didn't make a lot of sense to come up with new ones for other languages. So "DVDs" are "DVDs" the world over, and I highly doubt that "Blu-Ray" is going to get translated.
posted by valkyryn at 12:40 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: I can't back this up with anything other than anecdotal evidence, but "cheesy"? (Not as in pizza; more like a restaurant's decor or a made-for-TV-movie). I was trying to tell my Ukrainian/Russian speaking friends this word and they seemed not to have an equivalent in either language.
posted by too bad you're not me at 12:40 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by gijsvs at 12:40 PM on May 3, 2010

posted by fourcheesemac at 12:41 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

rock 'n' roll!
posted by sively at 12:41 PM on May 3, 2010

Supercalifragilisticespialidosious. And before this gets deleted it is not a frivolous answer. look to Broadway Musicals, films, and Jazz Lyrics for pure American ( Yea Mary was British) and other English language words.
posted by Gungho at 12:41 PM on May 3, 2010

posted by griphus at 12:45 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: "Design" cannot be translated with full meaning to German, where it's used for visual design only. There's no expression for conceiving something by putting it together so that it serves a purpose that's not specific to the result.
posted by oxit at 12:48 PM on May 3, 2010

Wow -- good question. I googled "untranslatable English words" and the best list I could find was this (or, for those who'd rather not click: plenipotentiary, gobbledegook, serendipity, poppycock, googly, spam (lunch meat), whimsy, bumf, chuffed, kitsch). I don't even know what half those mean, but I'm no linguist.
posted by cgg at 12:50 PM on May 3, 2010

The word "okay" seems to be used in pretty much every single other language the exact same way it is in English. I don't know if that means that there is no easily translatable alternative in other languages, but I think it might.
posted by jabberjaw at 12:51 PM on May 3, 2010


That's hard to believe -- for instance, how about the Italian "incipiente"?
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:51 PM on May 3, 2010

posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:55 PM on May 3, 2010

"Awe" doesn't have a good translation in French. I've seen it glossed as crainte religieuse - "religious fear." The word awe is sometimes used in a religious context, but that doesn't really get what the distinction is.
posted by nangar at 12:56 PM on May 3, 2010

posted by The White Hat at 1:02 PM on May 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Any usa-history-centric words that linger on would probably qualify, like Benedict Arnold, carpetbagger, copperhead, bootleg.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:03 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: The word "thanksgiving" carries a lot of meanings that a simple translation into another language do not.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:04 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

In the Midwestern vein, any of the geo-centric descriptors would work - Southern, West-coast, hillbilly, redneck, desert rat
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:05 PM on May 3, 2010

Seconding "cheesy" -- I haven't come across an equivalent in the 2 other languages I've learned.

Despite "okay" being a near-universal around the world, I have run across similar words in other languages.
posted by ropeladder at 1:05 PM on May 3, 2010

Unique compound words are pretty good candidates. Gerrymandered. Paddywagon if you spell it as one word.
posted by GuyZero at 1:06 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Does this count? Kitsch is stolen directly from the German, and has cousin words in other Germanic languages. This is a problem I'm running into a lot while brainstorming hoary English words—they've all got roots in or are stolen directly from other languages.
posted by carsonb at 1:07 PM on May 3, 2010

posted by grouse at 1:07 PM on May 3, 2010

This is a problem I'm running into a lot while brainstorming hoary English words—they've all got roots in or are stolen directly from other languages.

Well, yes this will be the case sort of necessarily because English is a derivative language. I think the idea would be to find words that, although their etymology could be traced back to whatever language, the word has become appropriated in such a way that it is uniquely English in its definition and connotations, so much so that you couldn't, say, translate it back into the language of its etymological roots and retain the same meaning.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:11 PM on May 3, 2010

I think English particles are probably difficult to translate: things like sentence-initial "well" or adverbial "just," as Marilynne Robinson discusses on this page of her book Gilead.
posted by dd42 at 1:11 PM on May 3, 2010

Perhaps I was a morbid kid, but I found it fascinating that english has terms like homocide, infanticide, filicide, matricide, patricide, magistricide..... and so on for any kind of -cide you can think of. Swedish does not.
posted by dabitch at 1:13 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Actually, "Uso!" In Japanese is sometimes used that way. Basically you're proclaiming "Lies!" (literal translation) which can range from the dramatic ("I can't accept this") to the incredulous ("You're full of it.") This from my somewhat limited foreign-language experience, so it is likely other examples exist.
posted by Phyltre at 1:16 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think this is going to be a very hard question to answer simply because it is on a very different scale than the example you are inverting.

For example English has no good word for the Spanish verb "ser" as distinct from "estar." But there are certainly other languages in the world that do have the ability to retain this distinction in translation.

And you aren't asking "What English words don't have a good equivalent in language X?" for which there will be many many examples, some of which have already been offered.

Instead, you seem to be asking "What English words don't have a good equivalent in any other language?" which is quite a question, since there are so very many languages out there, including ones like German, French and Afrikaans which share such close genetic ties to English.
posted by 256 at 1:18 PM on May 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

Googie, as in Googie Architechture
Camp, as in Campy ( not the same as Kitsch)
Gungho! ( or Gung Ho!), probably can be traslated as brave, or eager, but it means so much more than that.

Gobbledegook can be translated, at least into German as Quatsch!
posted by Gungho at 1:22 PM on May 3, 2010

What about, "okay/ok/o.k./OK/O.K."? I mention it because other languages seem to have adopted that very word with the same meaning without bothering to translate it.
posted by The Potate at 1:22 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: Sleazy. Tried explaining this to a French friend and it took nearly ten minutes.
posted by mammary16 at 1:23 PM on May 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

jefficator: ""Stop" "Taxi"

They can be translated, sure. But no one bothers to.

"Stop" is habitually translated in the Latin languages ("alto" in the traffic sense in Spanish, for instance.

"Taxi" is translated in the Nordic languages ("drosje" in Norwegian),although "taxi" is also used, and is increasingly common.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:23 PM on May 3, 2010

It depends a lot on what langauge you're trying to translate into.

Japanese has no articles, and no equivalent. So there's no literal way to translate "the" into Japanese. (And Japanese students studying English have enormous trouble learning when to use the definite article, when to use the indefinite article, and when not to use an article at all.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:24 PM on May 3, 2010

My French teacher couldn't think of an equivalent of either "skite" or "show-off" in French.
posted by rodgerd at 1:26 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: I've heard that "silly" is a tough word to translate. Apparently most of the possible words either imply genuine stupidity or just funniness without the mock-stupidity of proper silliness.

A Croatian-speaker once told me that "cute" didn't exist in Croatian: the closest word implies a sweetness of temperament that the English word doesn't.
posted by CutaneousRabbit at 1:31 PM on May 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

People are complicating the issue. Of course English is hard to translate into Japanese, and vice versa. I think the argument can at least be narrowed to look at how English words translate in other European languages.

In that case, English words with either French and/or Latin etymologies are generally easy to translate. That would include the "-cide" words...the "-cide" suffix is derived from the Latin verb for "to kill".

Anyway, when you take out the Latin and French derivatives, you're left with the Anglo-Saxon ancestry. In this case there are some words that are difficult to translate, since they date back to proto-German languages and evolved along much different lines.

Here you would have words like "mortgage", "sheriff", and "tough" (which carries a host of meanings served by multiple words in most other languages). Many others I can't think of at the moment.
posted by hiteleven at 1:33 PM on May 3, 2010

In the two other languages (Romance) that I use regularly, I have yet to find an adequate translation for "might as well".
For example, "Do we eat before we get the mail?" "Sure, might as well." Doesn't translate.
posted by msali at 1:42 PM on May 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Carpetbagger is a good one, since it has a host of connotations very specific to events that occurred very recently, linguistically speaking.

"Care package" and "baby shower" are a couple of others.
posted by jedicus at 1:43 PM on May 3, 2010

M'as-tu vu will work in many context for "show-off". Taxi is perfectly good French; it may be of German origin.

One thing that can truly be hard to translate from English: "Bible-language". In English, certain markers (e.g. the use of "thee", some turns of phrase, certain words) enable a writer to refer to the KJV Bible very directly, but without referring to a passage in particular. See, for instance, Jules's fake quote from Pulp Fiction. In French, where there isn't such a "historical" version of the Bible, it's much harder to convey.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:43 PM on May 3, 2010

Procrastination. I've also heard that awkward is a difficult word to translate, but--alas--I don't have a source.
posted by flawsekno at 1:49 PM on May 3, 2010

posted by turducken at 2:01 PM on May 3, 2010

Jaywalk, masturbatory, quaint? Maybe portmanteaus like metrosexual, gerrymandering, blaxploitation, prissy, stagflation, hokum, umpteenth?
posted by mshrike at 2:05 PM on May 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ditto on silly.

I've also had problems explaining what a 'dive' (as in a dive bar) was.
posted by hydrobatidae at 2:19 PM on May 3, 2010

Do other languages have the equivalent of "party" used as a verb? Not just to attend a party or to enjoy oneself, but to give oneself over to a bacchanal.
posted by lore at 2:25 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Dude, cheezy, skeezy, shady. Which are all slang, I note.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:25 PM on May 3, 2010

posted by pick_the_flowers at 2:27 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: "Taking the piss" is actually really hard to translate even into other English dialects.

Teasing doesn't quite cover it, since it's less friendly than that. But, it's more friendly than making fun of someone. Hard to explain to non-commonwealthers!
posted by generichuman at 2:35 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think English particles are probably difficult to translate: things like sentence-initial "well" or adverbial "just," as Marilynne Robinson discusses on this page of her book Gilead.

In my experience, this is exactly right. I'd add to the list other discourse markers: "Oh," "so," "anyway," "actually," "now," "I mean," "you see," "all right," and so on.

Plenty of languages have discourse particles of their own that do the same work as these do. But they basically never match up one-to-one from one language to the next. (F'rinstance, English sentence-initial "so" is sometimes equivalent to Spanish pues, sometimes to bien, sometimes to entonces or por eso or por tanto, and there are probably other translations for it that I'm not thinking of.)

It's also hard to translate massively polysemous words like "get" or "go." Once again, they tend not to correspond one-to-one with words in any other language. (Here's a pretty decent list of Spanish translations for English "get," all corresponding to subtly different uses of the word.)

But these are all words that are, in a sense, too vague to translate. When people talk about "untranslateable" words, they usually have the opposite in mind. They want words that are too precise to translate: words for very specific feelings, for cultural institutions that don't exist other places, for particular things that we all do but most cultures rarely discuss. The best sources for these seem to be art and personal aesthetics, and "cheesy" and "campy" strike me as pretty good candidates. I suspect that "snarky," "spunky" and "ironic" in the pop-cultural sense (as in "Fred's ironic appreciation for Vanilla Ice," not as in "Oedipus's ironic hunt for his father's killer") may raise the same problems for translators.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:37 PM on May 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

"Okay" as acceptance or agreement exists in French as "d'accord". Although it doesn't work as an adjective ("This pie's okay.").
posted by Netzapper at 2:47 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: A good recent example of what I think you are looking for is the word "stakeholder." Back in 2005, the then Deputy Secretary of State gave a speech in which he tried to lay out the US's ideal role for China in the international community, using the term "responsible stakeholder." This set off wide speculation in China about the definition of the word "stakeholder."

Also several languages, lack the present tense of the verb "to be" (as in "I am" or "he/she is"). In Russian, for example, something like "My name is Yuri" directly translates to "My name Yuri."
posted by chrisulonic at 2:57 PM on May 3, 2010

"Like," when used to indicate speech or attitude: "...and he was all, like, 'No way!'"
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:29 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've always struggled to convey the meaning of "issue" in Spanish. I've had this conversation with several people and that's the one that always comes up.
posted by Cobalt at 3:41 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Anyway seems not to have a direct translation in French.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 3:56 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One thing to watch for when asking a question like this would be new words, or slang of the moment, words for concepts that just haven't penetrated another languages consciousness just yet.

A word like "metrosexual" a couple years ago was such a new phrase/concept that other languages hadn't bothered to coin. Slowly, if it manages to keep a foothold in English, other languages will either find a word which matches, or adopt it in some way. Just a for instance (because I don't know any other languages), the rough equivalent of metrosexual in Japanese is 'grass eating male/herbivorous man.' It's slightly different in meaning, but it suggests passivity, disinterest in typically "manly" pursuits, and there's a component that fashion is pretty important as well.

Other recent things? As an example, the concept of 'haves and have nots' has bridged the gap due to a recent prime minister, discussing the economic problems. He essentially brushed off concerns about the shrinking middle class, the rise of the rich, and the growing numbers of the poor by stating that there are two groups, kachi-inu and make-inu, or winner dogs and loser dogs, and that it's just natural for kachi-inu to do well, and for make-inu to do poorly.

Cheesy, though, definitely doesn't translate. I've been trying to explain that one on and off for years.

The biggest one? The non-verbal "airquotes." Airquotes are such a multi-layered gesture, heavily laden with sarcasm that it just doesn't make sense here. (I accidently air-quoted in a class of attentive junior high students once, and they demanded to know what it meant. It took about ten minutes, with the help of the Japanese teacher, who also didn't understand, to get to a point where there was some concept of understanding.)
posted by Ghidorah at 4:19 PM on May 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Whatever in its colloquial use is really hard to translate.

"Do you want to go to the movies?"

"Sam, clean your room right now!"

Also, for a number of languages that don't have articles, "the" and "a" are impossible. Even as concepts, they're incredibly difficult to understand for people who speak languages without articles.

There are also words with more than one meaning and some meanings will translate, but others won't. Dr.Enormous just pointed out the word "observe," as in "to observe a holiday" vs. "to observe the kids playing." I imagine there are many words where one meaning has a translation but others may not.
posted by zizzle at 4:20 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Awkward" as a catch-all word doesn't exist in French, I know. You'd have to use different words to explain an awkward in silence, an embarrassing situation, an awkward person, a thing that's hard to use, a difficult question, etc.

"Home" has no direct equivalent either (though they use 'chez' in ways that don't translate into English.)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 6:26 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cobalt: "I've always struggled to convey the meaning of "issue" in Spanish. I've had this conversation with several people and that's the one that always comes up."

If you don't mean it in the magazine sense, "cuestión" or "asunto" seem to be the most commonly used translations, at least in Mexico. Both come fairly close to "issue", I think, especially "cuestión".
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 6:36 PM on May 3, 2010

Do other languages have the equivalent of "party" used as a verb? Not just to attend a party or to enjoy oneself, but to give oneself over to a bacchanal.

Yes. In Sweden (in the north where I'm from, anyway) the word "fest" (party) is used in almost exactly the same way as you are describing - it's very versatile word.

I would think that "skeezy" might qualify as untranslatable. I have yet to satisfactorily explain its meaning to my cousins.
posted by gemmy at 6:56 PM on May 3, 2010

I think that the vast majority of languages have some kind of structure by which they import words into English -- either a localization of English pronunciation or (since so many new English words are compound) a direct translation of the terms of the compound. So to me, the words that are hardest to translate are American (maybe British, don't know) slang, especially in-group community slang. "Tubular" and "radical" and such, but especially African-American slang. Sometimes I want to translate the phrase "get ends," as in "achieve one's (usually monetary) goals" -- unpacked, to me at least, it sort of means "take care of one's self in a difficult world in a way that may seem harsh or unfair but is, in fact, the most fundamental human activity." Other African-American slang seems equally hard to translate, and outside of music, foreign cultures often don't have a structure by which to import it.
posted by Valet at 7:06 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: This question is annoying me because I think that the whole concept of untranslatable words is bad linguistics.

But there are definitely words that are hard to translate from English to other languages. The ones I have the most difficult with are usually social concepts that were very important in american middle school, generally terms on the cool to lame scale but also including concepts like cheesy and various ironic terms.

Cool itself is one of the hardest to translate, it's not the same as popular and often describes a specific attitude of nonchalance, yet it is often used to describe very intense individuals like rock stars.
posted by afu at 8:02 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would nominate the range of internet slang we've seen in the past few years: ZOMGWTFBBQ, pwn3d, FAIL, etc. I imagine that different languages have their own internet slang, but I think each of these terms has their own specific connotation.
posted by holterbarbour at 9:05 PM on May 3, 2010

The subtle affective/poetic distinctions between close emotional states like happy/gleeful/merry/joyful etc. or sad/down/blue/glum/gloomy/bummed/disheartened etc.
posted by keener_sounds at 10:42 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think nebulawindphone has it right. It's not that words in English don't translate into other languages, it's that other languages make string together many more words to relay the same concept, or one word in English might translate to lots of different words in another language (or vice versa). I seem to recall that it's easier to go from a language that has multiple words for one word in another language (as opposed to being a native speaker of a language that has one word that translates into multiple words in another language; citation). Also, abstract words are ubiquitously found to be more difficult to translate into other languages than concrete words.

With that said, polysemous have some interesting consequences for learners of a language, and words with multiple translations (article abstract) are translated more slowly and are more difficult for second language learners and bilinguals to process.

With all of that said, I'm going to have to go Whorfian on this question, and agree with everyone else that words that have culturally distinct meanings are the most difficult (but are by no means impossible) to translate (this goes along with the abstract/concrete thing...since concrete things tend to be less culturally specific than abstract concepts). For example, a native Spanish speaker whom I interact with quite frequently had no idea what "busing" meant in English, in terms of the practice of having children take a bus to another school in compliance with desegregation laws. This came up in the context of a code-switching class (code-switching being the non-random mixing of two languages in discourse), where a woman had code-switched into English from Spanish at the word "busing," presumably because there is no Spanish equivalent.
posted by joan cusack the second at 11:53 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: I agree with 256: this sort of question is really hard to answer in general, because even really thorny English words are likely to have some analogue in some related language. I'm betting that the only things that are really going to work are words which are tied in some specific way to the history of an Anglophone country (carpetbagger, busing, etc.). So I'm just going to follow the trend of sharing a single anecdote.

A big problem for native Chinese speakers is the word "sarcasm". There's really no good single-word translation for it. Many dictionaries say that it's 讽刺, but that's also the word for "satire", which for English speakers is not the same thing at all.

I'm sure this says more about Chinese cultural attitudes than it does about English, though, because plenty of other languages can express this idea just fine. (Especially since we get it from French.)
posted by jweed at 2:05 AM on May 4, 2010

In a similar vein as cheesy, "tacky" is very difficult to translate into another language. Maybe the closest is the French "gauche" but for other languages it seems difficult.
posted by Aubergine at 5:03 AM on May 4, 2010

Best answer: afu has it right. From a linguistic point of view, there is no such thing as an "untranslatable" concept. Any human language can express any concept.

I picked "inchoate" because it belongs to a class of words that mean "you can't explain it directly, it's implicit, etc." Every language has such words, used to name the semantic domain of supposedly untranslatable concepts, which if you think about it is a sort of riddle.

We all need to believe our language contains untranslatable concepts.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:34 AM on May 4, 2010

Put differently, mostly folks here are providing words that depend on cultural and interactional context for implication or connotation. At the level of lexical denotation, none of the words proposed here provides any problem for translation.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:39 AM on May 4, 2010

actually, zizzle, whatever has a direct Japanese equivalent, just as infuriating and maddening-- betsu ni. What do you want to do? Betsu ni. What do you want for dinner? Betsu ni.

And on. And on.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:01 AM on May 4, 2010

Response by poster: I'm quite aware that there's no such thing as an utterly untranslatable word, but I thought that English might be broad enough to field at least a few words that are troublesome to convey in most any other language. "Cheesy" seems like a fine candidate. Beyond that, I'm grateful for the vivid examples from specific languages. Thank you, one and all!
posted by Iridic at 2:45 PM on May 4, 2010

Any human language can express any concept.

I was under the impression that even a concept like "eleven" cannot be expressed in some languages.

And for the Piraha, apparently there's no way to translate, "this happened". The closest translation is apparently something like, "I saw this happen". Which, if true, is a pretty big deal in terms of how we think about, or translate, a concept like history.
posted by surenoproblem at 10:48 PM on May 5, 2010

"Come," the verb.

You can make a list of conditions that make "come" the appropriate verb to use in English: the thing moving is headed towards the speaker, the thing moving is headed towards the addressee, the thing moving is headed towards the speaker or the addressee's home, the thing is metaphorically "moving" into an unmarked state (he's "coming around"), and a few more besides.

The conditions for the equivalent verb are likely going to be different in any other language you look at. In Spanish, for example, "venir" can't be used for movement towards the addressee in the same way; the same is true of Japanese "kuru", Korean "ota", Thai "maa", Chinese "lai", Mparntwe Arrente "petye-", and... the list goes on.

And in some languages, like Russian, there are millions of possibilities to choose from when you translate. In Russian, I have to choose whether the motion is imperfective or perfective, and if imperfective determinate or indeterminate, on foot or by vehicle, air, or water, and what part of the motion is the most relevant (when I arrive? when I leave? the motion in between?). In Zapotec, I have to describe the motion with respect not only to the participants in the conversation, but to the person moving's "home base" and whether it's a round trip. Even the closely related German uses "kommen" in situations where we English speakers can't.

You can certainly describe the same motion in any of these languages, but you're not really translating the verb; you're figuring out what motion is being described in English, and then finding the correct verb for that motion in your own language. And what if you don't have enough context to know what the correct verb is? You've got to guess, and suddenly you've introduced information that wasn't there in the original.

Another possibility: colors. English has a word for "pink"; many languages don't and would call the color "red." But that doesn't really get across a distinction that, for many English speakers, is an important one. Your protagonist's red sports car has a different impact than your protagonist's pink sports car. You could say "the color of such and such flower," but it doesn't really have the same connotations, does it?

I know that this isn't as snappy an answer as you're looking for, but it's sort of a demonstration of the point I was going to make, which is: Once you start looking, words that don't have an equivalent in other languages are everywhere.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:41 PM on May 6, 2010

Anything used to describe politics. "Conservative", for example.
posted by talldean at 11:22 AM on May 8, 2010

« Older Teach me about my Stuttgart Taxicab!   |   Wavy Bridge. No, not that one... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.