- Posted by Stephen Whiteley
- On 01/06/2015
- Translation blog
There are a lot of these lists of ‘untranslatable’ words on the internet. Of course, it’s not that they are untranslatable, simply that there is no precise (i.e. one-word-long) equivalent in English, hence their charm – they seem to compress an entire perspective on life, or at least an astute sociological analysis, into a few syllables.
Here are some of my favorites:
- Mamihlapinatapei (Yagan) (indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego) – the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.
- Iktsuarpok (Inuit) – to go outside to check if anyone is coming.
- Gumusservi (Turkish) – moonlight shining on water.
- Litost (Czech) – “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.” (Milan Kundera) The closest definition is a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.
- Vybafnout (Czech) – to jump out and say boo.
- Tartle (Scottish) – the act of hesitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name.
- Ilunga (Tshiluba) (Southwest Congo) – a person “who is ready to forgive and forget any first abuse, tolerate it the second time, but never forgive nor tolerate on the third offense.”
- Cafuné (Brazilian Portuguese) – the act of tenderly running one’s fingers through someone’s hair.
- Saudade (Portuguese) – an old favourite, “the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost.”
- Ya’aburnee (Arabic) – this incantatory word means, literally, “you bury me,” a declaration of one’s hope that the person in question will die before you, because it would be unbearable to live without them.
- Torschlusspanik (German) – translated literally, this word means “gate-closing panic,” but its contextual meaning refers to “the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages.”
- Drachenfutter (German) – [DRACH-ern-FOOT-er] while this word literally means “dragon fodder,” it refers to a type of gift German husbands bestow on their wives “when they’ve stayed out late or they have otherwise engaged in some kind of inappropriate behavior.”