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Lost in Translation: Exploring the Intricacies and Beauty of Untranslatable Words

Andrew Russo
Andrew Russo
Posted in Zoom Jun 13 · 13 Jun, 2023
Lost in Translation: Exploring the Intricacies and Beauty of Untranslatable Words

Distance, time, and culture were some of the biggest differences between humans. But thanks to the internet, these issues are no longer as significant as they were two decades ago.

People from diverse cultural backgrounds can now communicate and relate due to innovative applications on the internet that can automatically translate various languages. However, numerous untranslatable words create a communication gap, some of which shall be addressed in this article.

Translation of Words

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a word is a sound or series of speech sounds that symbolizes and communicates meaning, usually without being divisible into smaller units capable of independent use. Words are not used as absolute truths but as a reference point of one thing to another and are specific to cultural influence.

Translation of words is a transference of meaning, culture, and knowledge from one language to another. Untranslatable words are so unique to specific cultures or geographical references that no direct equivalent exists in any other language.

Generally, words are created whenever people experience a particular activity or phenomenon frequently enough to require a term to describe the shared experience. When words convey the intricacies of a specific language, they may lack a direct translation to any other language mainly due to the complexity of meaning or lack of familiarity.

There is no English word to refer to untranslatable words. The closest to this is a ‘lexical gap,’ which describes the absence of a word in a particular language but is present in another language.

List of Untranslatable Words

Language can influence your thought process, habit formation, and decision-making. Expanding your knowledge in diverse languages gives you more insight into different cultures influencing your daily habits.

Below is a list of some untranslatable words from around the world as compiled from different languages.

  • ‘Boketto’ – gazing vacantly into the distance. (Japanese)

  • ‘Sabhsai’ – someone who works outside no matter how bad the weather is. (Irish)

  • ‘Angrillen’ – beginning the grilling season. (German)

  • ‘Opia’ – the ambiguous intensity of eye contact, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable. (English)

  • ‘Pelinti’ – to move hot food around in your mouth. (Buli)

  • ‘Bilita Mpash’ – the opposite of a nightmare. (Bantu)

Below is a list of untranslatable words with beautiful meanings.

  • ‘Eudaimonia’ – the state of complete contentment and happiness. (Greek)

  • ‘Resfeber’ – the mixed emotions of fear and excitement before embarking on a journey. (Swedish)

  • ‘Komorebi’ – the sunlight streaming through the leaves. (Japanese) 

  • ‘Trouvaille’ – something wonderful found by pure luck. (French)

  • ‘Jijivisha’ – the desire to live the best, most enriched life possible. (Hindi)

  • ‘Vacilando’ – when the experience of traveling itself is more enjoyable and important to a person than actually arriving at a specific destination. (Spanish)

Translating Idioms and Metaphors

A lot of information is loaded into idioms and metaphors for one to decipher in one language, such that its interpretation into another language makes it a difficult task. Some of the methods translators use when translating idioms and metaphors from one language to the next include translating word for word, translating the meaning, and explaining it.

These methods are used interchangeably as the most accurate translation is sought after. Of the three methods, translating the meaning is preferable as it allows most of the context and stylistic differences to be preserved.

Expand Your Knowledge

Our perception and thought processes are enhanced and framed by language. It is up to you to expand your horizon and break the limitations of any given language by tapping into the resources of other languages. Untranslatable words may be the answer to finding a way to express yourself with words lacking in your current language.