40 untranslatable words we should all be using

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I love words.

I really, really love words. Their silent power to evoke reactions – some intellectual, some emotional, some even visceral. I love words – those arbitrary combinations of sounds which are at the core of language, which are so heavy with meaning. The love of words is a truth universal to all the writers I know.

Like most Maltese people, I am lucky enough to call two languages my mother tongues. I was raised speaking both English and Maltese at home and with friends. And while English is the language I think and write in, Maltese is a beautiful, complex language which will always influence my experience of the world. Because that is what words do. I’ve mentioned the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis here before – briefly, it suggests that language affects the way its speakers organise the world and, if you subscribe to this school of thought, that means that the more languages you are exposed to, the more rounded your world-view. My fascination with words has led me to learn three further languages to varying degrees of proficiency, and it always interests me to learn new idioms of the language because they give away so much about the history of that language and the mindset of the people who speak it.

My favourite thing of all, however, perhaps even more than the compulsion to trace the etymology of words back to their roots, is to come across words in other languages which are virtually untranslatable into English. Yes, you can paraphrase them to roughly explain them, but these do in one word what it would otherwise take you a whole sentence to achieve.

Here is a list of my favourite untranslatable words.

1. L’esprit de l’escalier (French). Literally ‘the spirit of the staircase’. This refers to the predicament of coming up with the perfect retort when the argument is over and it is too late to use it.

2. Ta’aburnee (Arabic). Literally ‘you bury me’. This is one which, like most things uttered at the height of romance, is both dramatic and slightly morbid. It means that you hope to die before this person does so you may never have to suffer his or her loss.

3. Toska (Russian). Vladimir Nabokov describes this word most poignantly as: “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. Wabi-sabi (Japanese). This lovely word refers to the act of finding beauty in life’s flaws and imperfections, and accepting them as they are.

5. Torschlusspanik (German). Literally ‘the panic of a gate closing’. This refers to the fear of diminishing opportunities which increases as one ages.

6. Saudade (Portuguese). Refers to the intense longing for a person or place you loved, which which or whom is now lost forever.

7. Hiraeth (Welsh). Similar to ‘saudade’, this word refers to homesickness tinged with grief for a place you can never return to.

8. Komoreb (Japanese). A word used to refer to the sunlight which filters through the leaves of trees.

9. Retrouvailles (French). The happiness of being reunited with a loved one whom you haven’t seen for a long time.

10. Pena Ajena (Spanish). That cringeworthy shame you experience on somebody else’s behalf when they are behaving in an embarrassing way.

11. Schadenfreude (German). This one is a familiar word as it has been adopted into the English vernacular. It refers, of course, to the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.

12. L’appel du vide (French). Literally, ‘the call of the void’. This refers to that impulse some of us get to jump when we are standing on a high ledge.

13. Pochemuchka (Russian). A wonderful word which refers to a person who asks far too many questions.

14. Backpfeifengesicht (German). An equally wonderful word which means, literally, a face badly in need of getting punched.

15. Beżżul (Maltese). Somebody who is cursed with unrelentless bad luck. This is similar to the Yiddish words ‘Schlimazl’ and ‘Schlemiel’.

16. Ilunga (Tshiluba – spoken in Southwest Congo). This marvellously specific word refers to the stature of a person “who is ready to forgive any first abuse tolerate it a second time, but absolutely never forgive or tolerate any third offence”.

17. Flâner (French). This is the art of leisurely and aimlessly strolling around the streets [of Paris] without any particular destination in mind, and done simply to bask in the beauty of the city.

18. Ayurnamat (Inuit). The philosophy that there is no need or reason to worry about that which you cannot change. Basically, Hakuna Matata. 

19. Desvelado (Spanish). The tiredness that comes specifically from having been kept awake all night – by inconsiderate neighbours, for example.

20. Donaldkacsázás (Hungarian). Quite literally, ‘Donald Ducking’ – i.e. Wearing a shirt but no trousers or underpants inside your house.

21. Atolondrar (Spanish). To be so overwhelmed by something that it causes you to become scatter-brained and careless. For example, if you were multi-tasking so heavily at work that you forgot to send an important e-mail. 

22. Żanżan (Maltese). To wear or use something new for the first time. Similar to the Spanish ‘Estrenar’.

23. Fingerspitzengefühl (German). Literally, ‘fingertips feeling’; used to refer to situational awareness, and the ability to react appropriately to a given situation.

24. Tan-te (Mandarin). A sense of uneasiness and worry – as if you were hyper-aware of your own heart beating.

25. Tocayo (Spanish). Somebody who shares your first name is your ‘tocayo’.

26. Gigil (Tagalog). That near-aggressive feeling you get when faced with something excruciatingly cute. Like you want to squeeze it until it pops. Basically, “It’s so fluffy I’m gonna die.”

27. Duende (Spanish). Literally translates as ‘goblin’, but actually refers to the heightened stage of emotion and passion connected with performance, most commonly with Flamenco, but applicable to other art forms.

28. Gezellig (Dutch). This word encompasses a number of meanings which refer to something the Dutch hold close to their heart. It is used to mean a sense of cosiness, friendliness, and comfort. Like sitting in your living room with good friends, sipping tasty wine and having fun together – that’s ‘gezellig’.

29. Forelsket (Norwegian). The euphoria that accompanies the early stages of falling in love.

30. Iktsuarpok (Inuit). The feeling of anxious anticipation that leads you to keep looking outside to see if anyone has arrived.

31. Sobremesa (Spanish). That period of time after you’ve finished lunch or dinner, where you just sit and talk with the people you’ve just shared your meal with.

32. Dépaysement (French). The feeling of displacement that comes with not being in one’s home country.

33. Cafuné (Brazilian Portuguese). The act of running ones fingers tenderly though somebody’s hair.

34. Kummerspeck (German). Literally, ‘sorrow/grief bacon’, it refers to the weight you might gain from comfort-eating when you are feeling sad.

35. La douleur exquise (French). Literally ‘the exquisite agony’, this is used to refer to the pain of unrequited love.

36. Empalagarse (Spanish). Being overcome by sweetness to the point of nausea – so much that you find yourself needing to drink water or eat something salty to take away the sweetness.

37. Oodal (Tamil). That exaggerated, melodramatic anger that follows lovers’ spats; sulking and throwing a strop in an attempt to get them to apologise.

38. Jayus (Indonesian). A joke so badly told and so unfunny, that you can’t help but laugh at it.

39. Naz (Urdu). The pride or confidence derived from knowing that somebody holds you as the object of their affection and desire.

40. Prozvonit (Czech). The act of calling a mobile phone and only letting it ring once so the other person will call you back, thus saving you money.

22 Comments
  • Edward
    February 19, 2014

    I have to reply to your post because half the words on your list, even some unusual ones, are on my (mental) list! Amazing.

    Not as good as yours, but in Spanish I also like “tararear”, i.e. to hum “ta ra ra ra” to songs :) A funny one in French (related to it, but different) is “yaourt”, which is when you sing along to a song in a foreign language and you don’t know all the lyrics, so you fill in the parts you don’t know with gibberish :)

    I love that you picked “żanżan”! I always use this word as an example when trying to explain to a foreigner some words that capture the Maltese way of thinking :)

    • admin
      February 19, 2014

      “Tararear” is brilliant. Spanish has some excellent untranslatables, though German takes the cake in my opinion.
      I’ve heard of ‘yaourt’ – like, to turn the song into yoghurt. It’s brilliant!

      And yes to żanżan! It’s one of the ones I use too, and have trouble translating it accurately.

      • Edward
        February 19, 2014

        Cool. The German ones in your list describe some really specific situations!

        Another two Maltese words I find hard to translate are “titwebbel” and “titħajjar.”

        Another thing. You know how Maltese mothers say things like “It-tifel qed jistudjali barra.” Once in some blog I had read that in Buenos Aires some mothers do the same in Spanish!

        • admin
          February 19, 2014

          Ooh, titwebbel is a really good one! So’s tithajjar. How would you translate them?

          That’s interesting about BA. A closest friend of mine is from there and sometimes it’s uncanny how similar some aspects of the cultures are. I’m going there in June so I look forward to seeing it first hand :D

          • Edward
            February 20, 2014

            I never managed to translate them, only approximated them roughly with a lot of words.

            That’s great! I’ve been to BA twice but I’ve never witnessed this linguistic construct first hand. I’ll try and retrace that blog. It’s a fantastic place. Enjoy it!

  • Andre Carbonaro
    February 19, 2014

    Tickled pink reading these :) thank you

    • admin
      February 19, 2014

      So glad you liked them :)

  • Andre Carbonaro
    February 19, 2014

    What about bażużlu and puppatur in Maltese

    • admin
      February 20, 2014

      Puppatur could be ‘show-off’, no?
      What does ‘bazuzlu’ mean?

      • Andre Carbonaro
        February 20, 2014

        Bażużlu would be someone very close to a Minister and who gets preferential treatment. I think it is very endemic to Malta :)

  • Christa
    February 20, 2014

    Love it. Although saudade isn’t necessarily for something that’s lost forever…at least not in Brazilian Portuguese. Great article, where did you find all the words? Another good one is “qtugh ta’ laħam” or “agujetas” in Spanish.

    • admin
      February 20, 2014

      Hey Christa! Thanks for the clarification. I got the words from researching online – I keep a little notebook with all the cool words I learn, which I like. There are lists out there, and a few discussions on Reddit too. Great resources.

      Qtugh ta’ laham is great! It’s sort of like muscle-cramps but not quite. Definitely one for the list. I’d never heard of agujetas before.

      • Ti Ahbar
        February 20, 2014

        Qtugh ta’ laham’s direct translation is “muscle stiffness” which one gets after hard exercise. However the maltese phrase is more precise as the muscle fibres actually get torn, and then the body starts healing them, making them stronger in the process.

        • Christa Calleja
          February 20, 2014

          There is a technical term in English which is “DOMS” or “Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness”, which would be the direct translation of “qtugħ ta’ laħam” in Maltese or “agujetas” in Spanish – but the English version isn’t as good I think!

      • Christa Calleja
        February 20, 2014

        Very interesting – I love words and languages too. So yes, “saudade” is kind of missing/longing. You could feel it for a place you can never go back to, but if your boyfriend is abroad for a while you could feel “saudades” for him too :) It’s a very beautiful word, I think.

        Another good Maltese one is “tiddarras” which I guess could be translated to something that “sets your teeth on edge” – I think in Portuguese they say “dá agonia”.

  • Michael
    February 20, 2014

    The Lebanese word you want is to’borni (yo’borni is third person).

    • admin
      February 20, 2014

      That makes more sense, actually. The conjugations of verbs are the same in Maltese as it has Arabic roots, and ‘t’ is you, while ‘j’ (y) is he/she. Thanks for the correction.

      • admin
        February 20, 2014

        Small correction: in Maltese, ‘t’ is both second person and singular feminine third person, while ‘j’ is singular masculine. Is it the same in Lebanese Arabic?

  • Ti Ahbar
    February 20, 2014

    Another apt maltese word is “inbaram”, that is when someone’s health deteriorates very fast

  • Andre Carbonaro
    February 20, 2014

    ċapċapielu is another interesting one

  • Mariel
    February 20, 2014

    Fantastic read! Really enjoyed this post

    A favourite Maltese word for me is iżżafżaf – like a takeout pizza slice [the square ones] :) I don’t think think there’s a better onomatopoeic word than that!

  • Nadine
    January 20, 2015

    kiesaħ (as in tifel kiesaħ / tifla kiesħa) is another word I’ve always had trouble translating

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