Untranslatable words – our top 10

When even the most proficient translators are lost for words

Susanne Holzer | © punkt & komma
Susanne Holzer
Content editor

A few years ago, the word was largely unknown outside Scandinavia, today it is used in almost every furniture shop ad: “hygge”. Now, almost everyone understands the Danish word to mean “a cosy atmosphere in which you enjoy the good things in life together with your loved ones”. And that’s despite the fact that the word is considered to be untranslatable! Which brings us right to our topic …

Because it’s not just Scandinavia where you have words that seem impossible to translate.

Does “untranslatable” really mean “untranslatable”?

A little spoiler: no, it doesn’t. It all comes down to how you define “untranslatable”. For instance, the Internet is full of funny lists of untranslatable words. Maybe you’ve had a little chuckle too about the “woman who is only attractive from behind” (Japanese bakku-shan) or “getting drunk home alone in your underwear with no intention of going out” (Finnish Kälsarikännit)? 

As you can see, these words are not untranslatable at all – they simply can’t be translated with a single word. Instead, it takes several words or a whole sentence to get the meaning across in another language.

From foreign words to loan words

Sometimes, people take the easy road and simply incorporate a foreign word into their own language instead of translating it. This is when a foreign word becomes a “loan word”. For instance, for lack of a better word, the German “Schadenfreude” (to take joy in other people’s misfortunes) is also used in many English-speaking countries.

Loan words can occur both in the source and the target language:

German loan words in other languages:

  • English: Angst, Kindergarten, Sauerkraut, …
  • French: Biedermeier, Rollmops, Zeitgeist, …
  • Hebrew: Dübel, Feinschmecker, Isolierband, …

Loan words from other languages in German:

  • English: Computer, Fan, Sandwich, Gag, ...
  • French: Charme, Dessert, Recherche, …
  • Arabic: Admiral, Giraffe, Karaffe, …

German, a notoriously difficult language?

Of course, untranslatable words don’t just occur in German. Why does it seem then that the German language has particularly many of them? Just think of “Fingerspitzengefühl” (to have an intuitive instinct about a given situation), “Fremdschämen” (feeling embarrassment for someone else), “Torschlusspanik” (the fear of missing out on opportunities or experiences before it’s too late) or the “innere Schweinehund” (an inner voice tempting you to be passive and lazy)!

The answer could lie in the special grammar of the German language. In German, it’s easy to create compound words, merging two or more words into one (e.g. Schaden + Freude = Schadenfreude). With many other languages, that’s not the case – they need more words to say the same thing.

Why is there such a thing as “untranslatable” words?

Of course, there’s no single reason why a word is easy, hard or even impossible to translate. However, untranslatable words usually say something about the culture they come from.

Because if there is a single word for something, it’s likely that the object or situation it refers to is fairly important in this culture. After all, you only need a linguistically economic (i.e., short) version for things that are important and therefore frequently referred to.

Did you know? This phenomenon can also be seen within a language. For instance, in northern Bavaria, there’s a special term for “the last beer before going home, which is not quite full and therefore cheaper, provided that you have consumed at least one beer before that” (= Spruz). This term doesn’t exist in the rest of Germany and is usually only understood by locals. That’s priorities for you …

100 words for snow …

Things that are so important in a certain culture that there is a special word for them – does this ring a bell? After all, Eskimos have 100 words for snow, right?

Wrong! We hate to tell you that you’ve been led up the garden path on this one … Because, apart from the fact that there’s not just one but several Eskimo-Aleut languages, the Inuit don’t have more words for snow than other languages. Where does this urban legend come from then? It goes back to the “Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax” and anthropologist Franz Boas, who this legend is attributed to.

Our top 10

Untranslatable words

Enough theory – let’s get to the fun part! Like we said, even the most proficient translators are often lost for words when it comes to translating certain terms. The same is true for the following ten examples – although some of them would be truly useful!

  1. Tsundoku (Japanese) = acquiring books but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them
  2. Utepils (Norwegian) = a beer enjoyed outdoors in the sunshine
  3. Tartle (Scottish) = the act of hesitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name
  4. Jayus (Indonesian) = a joke that’s so unfunny you can't help laughing
  5. Abbiocco (Italian) = the fit of drowsiness that occurs after eating a large quantity of food
  6. Laturaivo (Finnish) = the rage towards people who walk on ski trails
  7. Donaldkacsázás (Hungarian) = doing a Donald Duck (wearing a shirt but no trousers)
  8. Akihi (Hawaiian) = listening to directions and then walking off and promptly forgetting them
  9. L'esprit d'escalier (French) = the predicament of thinking of the perfect reply too late
  10. Age-otori (Japanese) = to look worse after a haircut

Professional translations by punkt & komma

As you can see, translating certain words can be quite tricky. If you don’t want to end up among the world’s biggest translation fails, it’s often better to leave your translation jobs to the experts. For instance, to the punkt & komma team! Our experts in the field of translation and international web copy are looking forward to hearing from you.

Recommended articles