Languages are rich, dynamic networks, constantly changing with time. Translators have their work cut out for them, having to familiarise themselves with slang, idioms, and other twists of speech. (See what we did there?) Moreover, every language has a mountain of cultural baggage behind it and certain languages have words that are so culturally specific that they are close to impossible to render into English. That’s what makes translation so difficult.
We know that there are tons of these lists out there, and we love them all so we wanted to make our own.
Here are our 25 favourite untranslatable words:
1. Hiraeth [HEER-ey-eth] (noun), Welsch
Hailing from traditional Welsh poetry, hiraeth is the feeling of longing for a home to which you can never return, which perhaps never even existed in the first place. Think of the rose-tinted nostalgia you have for your good, old college days; if you went back now you’d find your campus an alienating place filled with youths in Ugg boots taking selfies. You’re better off staying far away. Hiraeth.
2. Раздраконить [raz-dra-ko-nit] (verb), Russian
A Russian word which translates as “to become like a dragon, раздраконить is a slang term used in the sense of someone becoming so angry they start roaring and spitting fire. Vodka is flammable. Makes sense.
3. Тоска [tah-skah] (noun), Russian
Russian is a goldmine of concepts that evade the scope of English, simply by virtue of being dramatic. The word Тоска, for example, takes the notion of ennui (another word English wasn’t equipped for, so we stole it from the French) and intensifies it. Vladimir Nabokov defines Тоска:
“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, 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.”
4. Hygge [hue-gah] (noun), Danish
Everyone knows the feeling of coming in out of the cold to find friends and family welcoming you with delicious food, a hot drink, and a blazing fire in the fireplace. But to the Danish it’s such a fundamental aspect of their culture that they have a word to connote both the physical and emotional aspect of that coziness: hygge.
5. Iktsuarpok [eet-soo-ahr-pohk] (noun), Inuit
The anticipation of expecting guests that drives you to check at the door every few minutes? That’s not what iktsuarpok – our favourite untranslatable word in Inuit – means. In fact, the Inuit, who happen to know a thing or two about isolation, coined the term iktsuarpok to convey the feeling of wondering what is taking your guests so long. Truly positive people. They’re probably just impatient for some hygge.
6. Handschuhschneeballwerfer [seriously?] (noun), German
German has a fascinating vocabulary due to its tendency to string words together into exceptionally long compound tongue-twisters. This makes for the most amazing untranslatable words and our favourites of which are all insults. One of these is “Handschuhschneeballwerfer”, or literally, “glove-snowball-thrower,” a person who is such a wimp he needs to wear gloves to throw snowballs, or, metaphorically, one who will criticise only from a safe distance. We know you’ve done it, ya pansy. (Or should we say Sitzpinkler? Note: also an insult.)
7. Backpfeifengesicht [BUCK-five-en-ge-zicht] (noun), German
Another great German insult, Backpfeifengesicht means “a face that badly needs a fist in it.” We all know that person, someone so irritating and self-absorbed that a punch in the kisser is probably the only solution.
8. Korinthenkacker [core-in-ten-cuck-er] (noun), German
Our final German insult and an excellent term to describe an anal-retentive person who obsesses over small, petty things—think of that roommate you once had who constantly whined about crumbs in the toaster and hairs in the shower. Literally translated, it means “raisin-pooper.” Don’t spend too long thinking about how that word came into existence. No no no – we said don’t. Welp, now you’ve done it. Sorry about that.
9. ن شَاء اَللّٰه [in-SHA-lah] (exclamation), Arabic
This Arabic term used in a religious context translates as “God willing.” However, it’s used in daily life as a polite way of expressing doubt. If you’ve just promised an Arabic shopkeeper that you’ll return tomorrow to buy something and he responds with a slight smile and “Inshallah,” be assured that you’re not fooling anybody.
10. Shemomedjamo [sheh-mo-med-JAH-mo] (noun), Georgian
Foodies, rejoice! There is a Georgian word for the overindulgence just because the food is so delicious. The word is shemomedjamo, and it translates as, “I accidentally ate the whole thing.”
11. Litost [lee-toast] (noun), Czech
This is a Czech word which the writer Milan Kundera describes as crucial to understanding the human soul, meaning “a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.” Litost is more colloquially used to describe the realisation that something which should not happen has irreversibly happened. (See: shemomedjamo.)
12. Prozvonit [pros-VOH-nit] (noun), Czech
The closest we have in English to prozvonit is “to send someone a missed call.” A less philosophical Czech word, prozvonit means the action of calling someone and immediately hanging up so they have to call you back, thus simultaneously saving yourself money and being the most annoying person in your friend’s phonebook.
13. Saudade [sa-oo-dah-de] (noun), Portuguese
One area where English falls woefully short is in expressing matters of the heart; in English, more nuanced or complicated emotions often don’t get a single word to sum them up. Possibly the most beautiful example of this is the Portuguese saudade, which means the longing for someone or something you once loved, now gone forever. This one definitely one of the most sad untranslatable words out there.
14. يقبرني [Ya-ah-boor-nay] (noun), Arabic
Or is the Arabic word يقبرني, or literally, “You bury me,” the most beautiful? It expresses the wish that your beloved will outlive you, because you can’t bear the thought of existing without them. Creepy or romantic? We’ll let you decide.
15. Mamihlapinatapai [wee-giv-uh-p] (noun), Yagan
Less tragic and more quirky is the mouthful mamihlapinatapai, from Yagan, an indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego, that means the look of attraction shared between two people who both wish to initiate something but neither wants to make the first move. Even though it’s an untranslatable word, I suppose we all have been there.
16. Wabi-Sabi [wah-bee sah-bee] (noun), Japanese
While just a few syllables away from the paste that you put on sushi, Wabi-Sabi is in fact neither edible nor life-affirming like its delicious green lexical counterpart. Wabi-sabi: the mindset of accepting life’s imperfections and resigning oneself to the impermanence and decay of existence. MMMmmmmm… those Japanese. Happy people. Really.
17. Tingo, [tin-go] (noun), Pascuense
That Pascuense, the language of Easter Island, even has this word is very telling of their culture; tingo is the act of gradually appropriating a neighbour’s possessions by borrowing and never returning them.
18. Ilunga [ih-lung-ah] (noun), Tshiluba
From the Bantu language Tshluba, ilunga is arguably the most difficult to translate word in the world, a word for someone who will forgive a transgression the first time and tolerate it the second, but not the third.
19. Won [wahn] (noun), Korean
Do you know someone who just can’t break off a bad relationship? They may be suffering from won, the Korean word for one’s inability to let go of an illusion—a very short word for an emotion that encompasses so much!
20. Duende [du-en-day] (noun), Spanish
This one is a really notorious untranslatable word, the Spanish “duende” encompasses the force of a work of art or music to move us, to fill us with passion. As in, “His singing has style, but he will go nowhere because he has no duende.” Federico García Lorca referred to it as “the saddened spirit of buried Spain.”
21. 关系 [gwan-xee] (noun), Chinese
A tough word to nail down, 关系 refers to the Chinese concept of relationship building that happens at all levels of Chinese society: between families, businessmen, businessmen and politicians, politicians and judges…you get it. 关系 is the grease that turns the wheel in the Middle Kingdom.
22. 物の哀れ , [moh-no no ah-wah-ray] (noun), Japanese
Like the moment you realise you’re going to die and that the world will continue to turn without you. 物の哀れ is the awareness and sadness that accompanies realising life’s impermanence.
23. Wanktok [Wahn-tok] (noun), Tok Pisin
Wanktok originated out of isolated Papua New Guinea, where tribes may live only a few miles apart but speak entirely different languages. Wanktok refers to people who speak the same language and thus are expected to look after one another.
24. Uitwaaien [Out-vye-in] (verb), Dutch
Simple like the Dutch, and a bit more lighthearted: to relax in the countryside to clear one’s mind.
25. Gigil, [Ghee-gill] (noun), Tagalog
The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute. As anyone who’s been to the Philippines knows, Filipinos are possibly the nicest people in the world and are exactly the type of people unable to resist gigil, hence the necessity for creating a more succinct expression for it.
While this is only a short list of our favourite fantastic and unbelievable, untranslatable words, it illustrates how beautiful and exciting the world of languages really is. And while perhaps we’ll never know whether it’s the culture that influences its language or the language that influences its culture, it’s clear that the more words we learn the more we can expand our perceptions and perspectives.
What are your favourite untranslatable words? We’d love to hear them in the comments below!