Lost in Translation

The English language has some amazing words and expressions, but sometimes there just isn’t a word to describe the way you’re feeling.  The German word schadenfreude comes to mind: the joy one feels as the result of someone else’s misfortune.  Once in a while I try to describe something,  find myself flailing in English, and think that there must be a better word to describe what I mean!  I recently did some searching in our collection to see what words other languages use that don’t have equivalents in English. I came across some good ones.  Here are a few of my favorites.

From They Have a Word For It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words & Phrases:

Feierabend (German): Festive frame of mind at the end of the working day.

mbuki-mvuki (Bantu): To shuck off one’s clothes in order to dance.

razbliuto (Russian): The feeling a person has for someone he or she once loved but now does not.

From The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words From Around the World:

Backpfeifengesicht (German): a face that cries out for a fist in it. (The German language is so descriptive!)

pu’ukaula (Hawaiian): to set up one’s wife as a stake in gambling

From In Other Words: A Language Lover’s Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World:

hankikanto (Finnish): a frozen crust on the surface of snow that is strong enough to walk on.

wabi-sabi (Japanese): the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, incomplete, modest, and humble.

uitwaaien (Danish): to walk in the wind for fun.

As I was looking for more untranslatable words, I also came across some interesting websites. This one features an infographic mapping English words for emotions and 25 words to describe specific emotions that have no English word equivalent. And this one, which led me to a few more words I love: pena ajena (Mexican Spanish– the embarrassment you feel watching someone else’s humiliation) and gigil (Tagalog– the urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute). Comment below if you know of any amazing words that don’t have an English equivalent!



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8 responses to “Lost in Translation

  1. I recently wrote a post about errors in translations of literary works. Since you wrote this maybe you’d be interested in it.

  2. Great post- I love it! I didn’t know a single one of those words before- but my favorite is most certainly the Japanese selection. “Wabi-sabi” is fun to say and it got quite a meaning. I think we should all find a little more wabi-sabi in our lives.

  3. I learned the word saudade while traveling in Brazil. To feel saudade for something essentially means to long for it, but in a serious way! I most often heard it used in the context of those who had left Brazil and returned. It was how they felt about their country while they were gone. I got a little taste of it when I got back home. There’s something about Brazil…

  4. Pingback: Lost in Translation | Sotto Voce

  5. Now we need a pronunciation guide! Then I could use many, many of these in daily conversation! Very fun–thanks!

  6. Wonderful post, I really like Wabi-Sabi. I don’t have an untranslatable word for you, but I did write a post on my blog a while back about about the verb ‘to play’, as in playing a musical instrument and how in Spanish the equivalent verb literally translates as ‘to touch’.

  7. Alex Hurst

    I love the word wabi-sabi. It once took my teacher a thirty minute lecture to explain the real definition of it. His closing remarks will always stick with me:

    “Imagine a vast straw field. The large shoots reaching up into the sky, the wind rustling all of the identical stalks this way and that. Now, imagine a single, orange tiger lily in the middle of the field. This is wabi-sabi.”

  8. Hat dies auf distant dreamer rebloggt und kommentierte:
    It’s been a long time since I’m feeling a Feierabend
    (doesn’t sound right grammatically though :P )

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