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The Power of “Untranslatable” Words

Occasionally even the best translators come across of “untranslatable” words that make them stumble and think looking for the right equivalent in the target language. What are these so called “untranslatable” words? We are used to hearing about idioms that loose their meaning when transposed word per word into another language. Now it’s time to uncover the meaning of these illusive, hard to grasp words even though the part of the essence of the word is lost as it crosses from one language to another.

Many languages have words that don’t have a simple counterpart in another language. When translators come across such a word, they some times have to go into the lengthy description or explanation of this word, so that it makes sense in the target language. Some words pose more difficulty than others because of the enormous differences between cultures and local traditions.


Even though there are at least 250,000 words in the English language, this powerful language can still fall speechless. Here are several examples of such words that don’t translate directly into English. They can tell as fascinating stories about the societies they originated.
1. 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”

2. Ilunga
Tshiluba (Southwest Congo) – A word famous for its untranslatability, most professional translators pinpoint it as the stature of 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.”

3. Jayus
Indonesian – “A joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh”

4. Kyoikumama
Japanese – “A mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement”

5. Toska
Russian – Writer Vladmir Nabokov describes this word best: “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.”

6. Prozvonit
Czech – This word means to call a mobile phone and let it ring once so that the other person will call back, saving the first caller money. In Spanish, the phrase for this is “Dar un toque,” or, “To give a touch.” This word is a good example of modern day localization – it cannot be used in the US, for example, because here both callers bare the cost of a phone call.

7. Schadenfreude
German – Quite famous for its meaning that somehow other languages neglected to recognize, this refers to the feeling of pleasure derived by seeing another’s misfortune.

8. Torschlusspanik
German – Translated literally, this word means “gate-closing panic,” but its contextual meaning refers to “the fear of diminishing opportunities as< one ages.”

9. Wabi-Sabi
Japanese – Much has been written on this Japanese concept, but in a sentence, one might be able to understand it as “a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay.”

10. Tingo
Pascuense (Easter Island) – Interesting word describing “the act of taking objects one desires from the house of a friend by gradually borrowing all of them.”

11. Takallouf
Urdu – [ta-ka-LOOF] Takallouf can be loosely translated as “formality,” and it often refers to the prodigious amount of preparation put into hosting a tea or dinner. However, it also has a deeper, more culturally constructed meaning. It refers to a form of tongue-typing formality, a social restraint so extreme as to make it impossible for the victim to express what he or she really means, a species of compulsory irony, which insists, for the sake of good form, on being taken literally. The pressure of takallouf can end up leaving many things unsaid, but to break this tradition could end up bringing shame on a family.

12. Chai-pani
Hindi-Urdu – [CHAI-PA-ni] Although it literally means “tea and water,” one way to describe this compound word is as the money and favors given to someone, often a bureaucratic worker, to get things done. If you don’t offer enough money or gifts in the first place, someone may actually tell you that you’ve given the pani, but you still need to give the chai.

13. Dozywocie
Polish – [dosch-VOCH] Many cultures share this concept, but Polish sums it up in a single word. “Parental contract with children guaranteeing lifelong support”

14. Gagung
Cantonese – [ga-GUNG] Literally meaning “bare branches,” this word is used to talk about men who have little chance to get married or start families due to China’s one-child policy and its results: an excess of marriageable males as compared to females.

15. Kokusaijin
Japanese – [kok-SYE-djin] This nouns has a literal translation as “an international person,” and refers to “Japanese citizens who are able to get along with foreigners.” Japanese kokusaijin may be an ordinary person with a flexible and open personality, or someone who speaks foreign languages and knows a lot about foreign countries and cultures.

16. Snorker
Early English – [SNORK-er] According to an 1808 English dictionary, snorker is an insult that means “one who smells at objects like a dog” and implies getting into other people’s business.

17. Jung
Korean – [yung] – “A special feeling that is stronger than mere ‘love’ and can only be proved by having survived a huge argument with someone”

18. Koyaanisqatsi
Hopi – [koy-on-iss-KOT-see] This Native American word means “nature out of balance” or a “way of life that is so crazy it calls for a new way of living”

19. Sisu
Finish – This word describes a unique Finnish survivalist mentality and means a daring fierce person who “has guts”.

20. Moshi-Moshi
Japanese – This untranslatable word is used as a telephone greeting because of an old superstition that yokai (folk monsters and demons) and yurei (ghosts) can’t say it. They can only say “moshi” once. It is used when the speaker cannot be seen clearly.

Source:;; and books by H. Rheingold and C. Moore
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