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10 Useful Words That Have No Direct Translation into English

September 21, 2020by Emily Thomson

Untranslatability is defined as a text or word that has no equivalent or no direct translation in another language.

The Beauty and Challenges of Languages

LanguagesMulti coloured globe with the word translate in different languages are truly beautiful, they allow us to express ourselves, communicate effectively with one another, and they define the differences between cultures. The large variety that we have in the world is what makes languages so beautiful, but this is also what makes them hard to translate and creates translation boundaries.  In an ideal world of translation and interpreting every word would have a direct equivalent in every other language but as I am sure you are aware, this is not the case.  To make things even harder for translators languages are continuously evolving and new words and vocabulary are always being created. Whether they are new slang words or technical key terms translators need to know them and most importantly, be able to translate them. This is the most challenging part as there are very rarely single-word translations.

Phrases with no Direct Translation

Every language has its own words and phrases that cannot be directly translated. For example in English the expression ‘you’re driving me up the wall’ does not literally mean that you are defying gravity and driving on walls however this is how it would be directly translated! The expression actually means that someone is annoying you so much that they are making you mad. There are also translation barriers when translating other languages into English such as ‘Disfrutar como un enano’ in Spanish literally translates to “enjoy yourself as a dwarf”! But it truly means, to be enjoying yourself and having a great time, similar to the English saying: ‘to have a whale of a time’.

There are also words in other languages that we do not have in English which makes it very hard to translate them. Although it is possible to understand the meaning of the word there is not a literal translation in English, therefore it takes a skilled translator to maintain the correct meaning of the text.

10 Words With No Direct Translation

1. Cafuné (Brazilian Portuguese)  – Lovingly running your fingers through someone’s hair

2. Wabi Sabi 侘 寂 (Japanese) – A view centred on accepting that life is always changing and that there is beauty in life’s imperfections

3. La Douleur Exquise (French)  – The heartbreak and pain experienced when you know that they person you love will never be yours

4. Voorpret (Dutch) – The excitement you experience when planning or looking forward to an event or activity

5. Hygge (Danish) – “complete absence of anything annoying, irritating or emotionally overwhelming, and the presence of and pleasure from comforting, gentle and soothing things”

6. Qualunquimo (Italian) – A person who has no interest in politics or issues in society

7. Ilunga (Bantu) – A person who is willing to forgive someone the first time, tolerate it the second time but never a third time

8. Sobremesa (Spanish) – The time after eating a meal when people remain at the table to talk and perhaps drink or play cards and simply just enjoy each other’s company with a fully stomach

9. Estrenar (Spanish) – To try, wear, or use something for the first time

10. Uffda (Swedish) – The expression used to show sympathy when someone else is in pain

Some of these words seem so obvious and it makes you wonder why we do not have words like them in English. Do you need help with translation? Our translators are highly qualified and receive frequent training to ensure they can provide accurate translations.

Emily Thomson

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