Favorite untranslatable words?
February 19, 2005 1:13 PM   Subscribe

What are your favorite untranslatable words or phrases? I'm wondering after reading this thread.

I think my favorites are probably the Danish hygge, meaning, as a Dane I knew once put it, the feeling of good friends, cold beer and a warm fire. I also like what librarina brought up in the other thread, l'ésprit de l'éscalier, or thinking of a really good comeback after the moment has passed. There's also "il pleut comme vache qui pisse," it's raning like a cow pisses. Interestingly enough, the google translator spits it out as "It's raning cats and dogs."
posted by borkingchikapa to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
l'appelle d'vide - the urge to jump from high places, into a canyon, etc.. literally, "the call of the void."
posted by Jack Karaoke at 2:02 PM on February 19, 2005 [4 favorites]

One of my faves in Greek: "Istories me arkoudes" (this is a phonetic. or "Greeklish" rendering for a phrase meaning "stories with bears"), to refer to narrated events that are so wild and crazy it seems that they can't possibly be true.
posted by taz at 2:26 PM on February 19, 2005

Also, just by-the-way, the Greek term for "hygge" is "kefi". It's nice to have a one-word description of that feeling.
posted by taz at 2:30 PM on February 19, 2005

Oh God Jack, I have one of those every time I'm standing in a high spot. Thanks, French people, you elegant suicides. I also appreciate their nostalgie de la boue, aching for the mud, wishing you could be off having some heedless romp. I have one of those every time I'm at work.

I like the compactness of shlemazl, to indicate the sort of black cloud Eddie who asks after your mother just after she died, or parks in the exact spot where the piano's going to fall. It's different from shlemiel (clueless dork), or nebbish (shabby little person) -- it's just a kind of overall spiritual and life haplessness. I've always been a fan of Yiddish's ability to parse the nerdish conditions of life.
posted by melissa may at 2:43 PM on February 19, 2005 [3 favorites]

Aufhebung. On the first day of a German class in the fall each of us was asked what our deutsches Lieblingswort was, and I gave Aufhebung and was then asked to explain its meaning in my (terrible) German. M.H. Abrams does it better: "it signifies both the annulment and preservation, and suggests also the elevation, of contraries in a synthesis, or third thing.".

This isn't directly responsive to your question (don't delete me!), but the bits about rain reminded me, there's a great turn of phrase in Tom Waits's song "Time", "it's raining hammers, it's raining nails".

(on preview, melissa may, thanks for answering my unasked question about nostalgia for the mud.)
posted by kenko at 2:54 PM on February 19, 2005

Schadenfreude is the prototypical example. Melissa May is right on with the Yiddish: mensch comes to mind.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 3:02 PM on February 19, 2005

This previous thread has some real gems.
posted by Aaorn at 3:17 PM on February 19, 2005 [1 favorite]


Arabic for, literally: you bury me.

It's... I guess the word is "incantation," something you say in a superstitious effort to make it come true. It's extreme terms of endearment, meaning "I hope the time never comes in my life when you'll be gone." If you tell a really good joke, people will laugh and say this. Untranslatable? I guess not, but pretty paradoxical-sounding at first.

I also remember hearing a professional film translator say he scratched his head for a long time over "How do you like them apples?"
posted by scarabic at 3:40 PM on February 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

scarabic, I really like that.

I thought of another, now-dead English word taken from French, which may be the most beautiful word I've ever heard: chantpleure, to sing and cry at the same time. It's translatable, but I don't see how it could be more elegant.

(And when I was googling to see if I'd spelled it correctly, I found this article about other long-dead but very appealing English words, if you go in for that sort of thing.)
posted by melissa may at 4:05 PM on February 19, 2005

melissa may, that article mentions the extinct/obsolete word "okselle" for "armpit" -- I'm fairly sure I've heard my Scottish grandmother use that or something very like it (oxter, maybe).
posted by tracicle at 4:15 PM on February 19, 2005

Technically, no word is unstranslatable. The translation just might not be as concise as you'd like.
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:10 PM on February 19, 2005

One of my favorite German concepts is that of Fernweh - a longing to be away. As distinguishable from Wanderlust in that it's not about wanting to travel around, i.e. be footloose and fancy free, but rather the desire to simply be somewhere far distant. Thus it's the true opposite of Heimweh (homesickness) and a very elegant word for expressing that, I think.

There's also Türschwellenangst - literally 'threshhold fear'; what it means is fear of commitment. Not an concept without an equivalent in other languages/cultures, but a unique image for conveying the concept.

I have a whole list of these somewhere (I'm a Ger > Eng translator by trade), but these are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head.
posted by melixxa600 at 5:13 PM on February 19, 2005 [2 favorites]

For the record: it's spelled l'appel du vide and l'esprit de l'escalier or esprit d'escalier. Also, to me chantpleure sounds as French as songcry sounds English. Maybe it's Canadian French?

I like the French word dépayser: to give the feeling of not being in one's country (dépaysé, dépaysant, dépaysement). Also the German word quatsch, pronounced "kvatch", is a shorter, less rude version of "bullshit!".

I'd posit that every word is untranslatable. And yet somehow (we say we) understand each other.
posted by Turtle at 6:03 PM on February 19, 2005

I think "fun" is my favorite untranslatable word. Many languages do not have a word for the concept of fun--just a verb for enjoyment.
posted by grouse at 6:19 PM on February 19, 2005

Technically, no word is unstranslatable. The translation just might not be as concise as you'd like.

The previous thread had the example of the word "rico." Although you can say that it combines the words "delicious" or "savory" as applied usually to food and applies it to events and sex and well, a certain type of sensation, that doesnt do it justice. You either need an entire explanatory essay about when/how its used just as Garcia Lorca attempted to explain the Spanish word "duende."

Likewise some societies, the Japanese for example, have a highly developed concept of social place which we can only translate lamely with words like "shame" which are not appropriate at all. I do think some words have the assumptions of an entire culture embedded in them.

Also, strings of words, such as a poetic phrase can be untranslatable. In those cases, the phrase does not mean the same thing without the concision.
posted by vacapinta at 6:40 PM on February 19, 2005

German is a goldmine of these words. One that comes to mind is das Sitzfleisch. It is often translated as assiduity or perserverance, but it literally (or etymologically) means "sitting flesh" and can have opposing connotations, I am told, depending on how it is used. I don't speak German, but I came across this word in a Penguin edition of some Nietzsche or other, and a friend from Cologne explained it to me. Not sure if saying you admire someone's perserverance is the same as saying "nice ass" though. I need to ask my freund. [Note: assiduous is not thought to have a similar etymology, despite the first three letters.]
posted by mds35 at 6:41 PM on February 19, 2005

Drawing from Milan Kundera, I would suggest the Czech word 'litost.' He claims that "As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it."

"Litost is a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery."

-from The Unbearable Lightness of Being
posted by sindark at 10:51 PM on February 19, 2005

I humbly submit two words from Russian (my native language):

"pohmelyatsya": the act of sobering up by drinking more (to ease the pain of hangover). Roughly equivalent to the euphemism "hair of the dogs".

"Toska". I will just use Mr. Nabokov's description of it, since it is so far beyond what a mere mortal like myself could write:

"No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom."
posted by blindcarboncopy at 12:10 AM on February 20, 2005 [4 favorites]

from the fabulous little book They Have a Word for it:
mokita: the truth which no one speaks
mono-no-aware: the sadness of things
razbliuto: the feelings you have for someone you once loved, but now do not
ocurrencia: sudden bright idea or witty remark
posted by jodic at 5:43 AM on February 20, 2005


What I'm looking for, is a word that means, "Someone who at first one thinks is on the ball, but upon listening more closely, one realizes that they're stoned/stupid." (I'm nominating "goldblum" in the meanwhile.)
posted by mimi at 5:51 AM on February 20, 2005

"pohmelyatsya": the act of sobering up by drinking more (to ease the pain of hangover). Roughly equivalent to the euphemism "hair of the dogs".

Russian has more words for drinking and related concepts than any other language I've ever studied. When I was reading Venedikt Erofeev's Moskva-Petushki (a tragicomic love story/religious meditation/train ride/drunken binge) I had to look up several words on every page, and 90% of them turned out to mean 'get really drunk' or 'drink straight down' or something of the sort.

Toska is indeed a marvelous word, but I want to mention that the stress is on the second syllable: tahs-KAH. Nothing to do with the Puccini opera.

And anyone interested in this stuff should definitely get the book jodic mentions. Another one pulled at random from its pages:

nemawashi (Japanese): informal feeling-out and consensus gathering.

But you should take the book with a grain of salt, and if you want to quote or use one of the words be sure to confirm it with another source. (For instance, I couldn't find nemawashi in my Japanese dictionary, so I googled it and got a lot of hits, including this, so I'm guessing it's valid.) jodic's "razbliuto: the feelings you have for someone you once loved, but now do not" is not a Russian word; in fact, I'm not even sure what word Rheingold's source (Hodgepodge: A Commonplace Book, by Joseph Bryan) was trying to convey. There is a verb razlyubit' 'to stop loving/liking,' but there's no associated noun. I really wish people who compile books like this would make more of an effort to verify the entries instead of just going 'cool, I'll include that!'

Now, a Russian phrase that's genuinely difficult to translate is razlyuli malina (with the stress on the i in each word: razlyuLEE mahLEEnuh). "Razlyuli" occurs only in this phrase, which Makurov defines as 'free and easy life' and Lubensky as '(sth. is) very good, wonderful, (sth. is going, is done, etc) very well, wonderfully; great; super(-duper); terrific.' Sure is fun to say, anyway!
posted by languagehat at 7:58 AM on February 20, 2005 [1 favorite]

I was just thinking about this when I watched Godard's Mépris a while ago, and was thinking of how inadequately the title was translated as "contempt", which completely changes the meaning and tone of the film. Mépris, as I understand it (although French is my second language), involves contempt, but also pity.
posted by ITheCosmos at 10:50 AM on February 20, 2005

mono-no-aware: the sadness of things

Also present in Christian, I think, terminology as lacrimae rerum: "the tears of things". I think it has a similar meaning as mono no aware.

"Empathy" was invented to translate Einfühlung.
posted by kenko at 10:51 AM on February 20, 2005

Surprised nobody has mentioned it yet: the Dutch word gezellig. Means more or less "cozy +"-- it refers to an ambiance that is achieved with friends, food, drink, lighting, music, etc. and seems similar, actually, to the Danish word mentioned in the post.

I found it interesting that upon learning the word gezellig the concept became important to me in daily life, probably because I suddenly had a tool (the word) to express a desire for it (the concept). Telling someone that I wanted to go somewhere "gezellig" made for a very simple ruling in (or out) of potential drinking-spots. This would continue to be very efficient if I still lived in the Netherlands.

Thanks for "nostalgie de la boue", melissa may. I've needed that term all week.
posted by mireille at 11:19 AM on February 20, 2005


It's Portugese for homesickness, but can be applied to just about anything. You can feel saudade (sow-DA-gee, for those of us who learned our Portuguese in the south of Brazil) for a place, and food, a person, a state of being. It's like my neighbor's daugher, who feels "dadsick" everytime her father has to travel. Plus, it feels so laid back and Brazillian to me. The word is somehow magically self-reflective (maybe just to be) thinking of saudade makes me feel saudade.
posted by terceiro at 11:38 AM on February 20, 2005 [1 favorite]

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