What is an untranslatable word?

Here, an untranslatable word is one where a literal translation into English would not fully communicate the meaning of the word the way it would in it’s language of origin or use. The literal translation might be nonsensical to an English speaker without an example for context, and we may additionally lose things like weight, tone, and/or understanding of appropriate cultural context. Ultimately, an untranslatable word is one in which English speakers may need to use tools beyond literal translations to even partially grasp the meaning of the original word. 

Examples

Much research has been done on untranslatable words by linguists and linguaphiles.  Here are a few commonly referenced words that are difficult to fully translate into English. 

  • Cafuné (Brazilian Portuguese): The act of tenderly running your fingers through someone’s hair.
  • Mamihlapinatapei (Yagan, an indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego): The wordless yet meaningful look shared by two people who desire to initiate something, but are both reluctant to start.
  • Ilunga (Bantu): A person who is willing to forgive abuse the first time; tolerate it the second time, but never a third time. (This word has been chosen by many translators as the hardest word to translate into English.)
  • Saudade (Portuguese): The feeling of longing for someone that you love and is lost. Another linguist describes it as a “vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist.”
  • Litost (Czech): Defined roughly as a state of torment and agony created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery. 
  • Torschlusspanik (German): Literally means “gate-closing panic” but in context the meaning refers to the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages.  
  • Ya’aburnee (Arabic): Literally “You bury me.” A declaration of one’s hope that they’ll die before another person because of how difficult it would be to live without them.
  • Koi No Yokan (Japanese): The sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall into love.

A great deal of research in recent years has been focused on relationship-related untranslatable words, but don’t feel limited by these. There are so many more out there!

Resources

Here are some resources full of lists of untranslatable words to inspire you and get you started. (Many of these lists also have great word resources in the comments that have been contributed by readers which are well worth checking out!)

Ten Most Difficult Words To Translate, and 5 More Difficult Words to TranslateAltaLang Language Services, Beyond Words Language Blog.

The Top 10 Relationship Words That Aren’t Translatable Into English. Big Think.Com

20 Awesomely Untranslatable Words From Around the World,  20 MORE Awesomely Untranslatable Words From Around the World and 15 Untranslatable Words We Should Be Using in EnglishMatador Network

Better Than English.com (This entire site is devoted to untranslatable words, so it has lots of options to sort through.)

11 Untranslatable Words From Other Cultures. Maptia Blog. This resource uses artwork to illustrate the meanings of these words, and has an accompanying book of illustrated untranslatable words called Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders.

 

 

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