When is a word untranslatable?

Language Faux Pas, Translation & Localization17 September 20143.9k

Obviously we're big fans of translating, but even we have to accept that sometimes we are left stumped. 

Despite the fact we can translate into over 50 languages, there are incidences when you come across a word that is just untranslatable.

Typically, this is because the target language version will need a full sentence to replicate the meaning of the word, or the concept is so unique to the culture where it has been expressed and so there is no direct replacement.

This is where localization usually comes in, as it ensures that a statement's meaning and intent is translated, even if the exact same words cannot be used. However, there are some words that really do not have an easy fit when trying to bring them into the English language. Let's have a look at some fun examples. 

Germany is famed for its unique language and text expansion is always an issue when switching between German and English. Indeed, due to issues such as grammar, syntax, word usage and terminology, expansion can be as much as 20 per cent. But Schnapsidee works the other way, as it roughly means 'an ingenious plan one hatches while drunk'. For example: "Why on earth did he sign up for skydiving? There's a Schnapsidee if ever I saw one."

You might not automatically associate the Cook Islands with untranslatable words, but Papaktata deserves a mention. It means to have one leg shorter than the other, and it makes you wonder how common an occurrence it is that they have their own word for it. Maybe they read a lot of pirate books when in school?

I'm sure we can all agree that this is a mouthful. Because Turkish is an agglutinative language, it uses affixes to create new words. This is an example of when political events left linguists scratching their heads, as the word was created after the break-up of the Czech Republic. Its actual translation is 'You are said to be one of those that we couldn't manage to convert to a Czechoslovak'. I know which one I'd prefer saying. 

The Inuits have a series of different languages used in the US, Canada, Greenland and other countries. They are known for their unique existence, which sees them live in wintery conditions, stay in igloos and fish for food. It seems like a fairly lonely life at times, and so i'm not surprised to see they have the word Iktsuarpok, which means 'the frustration of waiting for someone to turn up'.

Milan Kundera is rightly regarded as one of the finest writers of the 20th century. His best-known work is The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but he came into problems when trying to translate the Czech word Lítost into English while writing The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. It means 'a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one's own misery' and he struggled to come up with a word that suitably reflected this state of the human condition. Maybe it's because English people are all so happy!

Do you have any other examples of words that are untranslatable? If so, get in touch with us on Twitter.


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