Untranslatable words: A localization challenge

untranslatable words

Untranslatable words are some of the challenges you may encounter when working in the translation and localization industries. These words offer glimpses into various cultural experiences, emotions, and concepts that might not have direct translations in other languages, showcasing the richness and depth of human expression across the globe.

Untranslatable English words

Sonder – The profound realization that everyone has a life as vivid and complex as your own, with their own stories, emotions, and paths.

Serendipity – The occurrence of making fortunate discoveries by chance, stumbling upon something delightful without actively looking for it.

Chuffed – A British colloquialism for feeling delighted or proud, often with a sense of satisfaction.

Nemesis – A long-standing rival or archenemy, often associated with being the ultimate cause of one’s downfall or adversity.

Limerence – The state of being infatuated or consumed by romantic desire for someone, characterized by intrusive thoughts and intense emotions.

Petrichor – The pleasant, earthy smell produced when rain falls on dry soil after a period of warm weather.

Quixotic – Pursuing lofty, romantic, or idealistic goals without regard to practicality, often in a manner that’s noble but unrealistic.

Phosphenes – The sensation of seeing lights, spots, or colors without light entering the eye, often experienced when pressure is applied to the eyeballs or when closing the eyes tightly.

Untranslatable German words

Schadenfreude – Taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune or pain.

Weltschmerz – The feeling of melancholy or world-weariness caused by the state of the world.

Fernweh – The longing for far-off places or a strong desire to travel and explore distant lands.

Backpfeifengesicht – A face that’s begging to be punched, often used humorously to describe someone who is irritating or has an annoying face.

Verschlimmbessern – To make something worse while trying to improve it.

Ohrwurm – A catchy tune or song that gets stuck in your head, similar to an “earworm.”

Torschlusspanik – The fear of running out of time, particularly in regard to opportunities in life.

Fernweh – A longing for far-off places, a homesickness for places you’ve never been.

Fingerspitzengefühl – A fine instinct or sensitivity in handling delicate situations, having a knack for handling things with skill and sensitivity.

Erklärungsnot – Being at a loss for words when asked for an explanation, particularly when caught in a difficult situation or having to explain oneself.

Innerer Schweinehund – The inner voice that tells you to procrastinate or be lazy, the internal conflict between doing what’s needed and giving in to laziness.

Feierabend – The time after work when you can relax and enjoy your evening, a period for unwinding at the end of the workday.

Untranslatable Japanese words

Tsundoku – The act of acquiring books but never reading them, allowing them to pile up.

Wabi-sabi – Embracing imperfection and finding beauty in the flawed or imperfect, appreciating transience and impermanence.

Mono no aware – The awareness of the impermanence of things and the gentle sadness or wistfulness about the transience of life.

Komorebi – The sunlight that filters through the leaves of trees.

Yūgen – Profound grace, beauty, and elegance that evoke deep emotions but are beyond expression.

Untranslatable French words

Dépaysement – The feeling of being far from home or in a foreign place, often leading to a sense of disorientation or a change in perspective.

Flâner – To stroll or saunter leisurely, especially with no particular destination, and often enjoying the sights and atmosphere.

L’appel du vide – The inexplicable urge or call of the void, the fleeting thought or temptation to do something dangerous, like jumping from a high place, without intending to act on it.

Vouloir le beurre et l’argent du beurre – Wanting to have your cake and eat it too, desiring contradictory things or wanting to have it all.

Coup de foudre – The sudden and powerful feeling of love at first sight, often described as a lightning strike of love.

Débrouillard – Resourceful, inventive, or ingenious, particularly in navigating life’s challenges or finding solutions.

Untranslatable Spanish words

Sobremesa – The time spent lingering at the table after a meal, enjoying conversation and company.

Estrenar – To use or wear something for the first time, particularly new clothes or items.

Empalagar – To be overwhelmed or disgusted by something overly sweet, rich, or cloying.

Friolero/a – Someone who is very sensitive or prone to feeling cold, often needing warmth or layers even in mildly cool conditions.

Merienda – A light meal or snack, often taken in the late afternoon between lunch and dinner.

Desvelado – Unable to sleep, sleep-deprived, or suffering from insomnia.

Untranslatable Italian words

Sprezzatura – Effortless grace or nonchalance, particularly in the way one carries themselves or performs tasks.

Abbiocco – The drowsiness or heavy feeling after eating a big meal, akin to a food coma.

Meriggiare – The act of resting or seeking shade during the hottest hours of the day, typically around noon.

Culaccino – The mark left on a surface by a wet glass, a water ring or stain.

Cavoli Riscaldati – “Reheated cabbage,” referring to a failed attempt to revive a relationship or situation that has already ended.

Pantofolaio – Someone who spends a lot of time at home or is particularly fond of slippers or being comfortable indoors.

Sciabordare – The sound of water gently lapping against the shore or the sides of a boat.

Other untranslatable words

Saudade (Portuguese) – A deep emotional state of longing or nostalgia for something or someone that might never return.

Mamihlapinatapai (Yaghan) – A meaningful, shared look between two people, expressing mutual desire yet both are reluctant to initiate.

Hygge (Danish) – A feeling of coziness, contentment, and well-being through enjoying the simple things in life.

Tartle (Scottish) – The hesitation or awkward pause when you forget someone’s name.

Meraki (Greek) – Putting your soul, creativity, and love into something you do, leaving a piece of yourself in your work.

Forelsket (Norwegian) – The euphoria experienced when falling in love.

Ubuntu (Nguni Bantu) – A philosophy that represents humanity and kindness, often translated as “I am because we are.”

Gigil (Tagalog) – The irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute.

Pisan Zapra (Malay) – The time needed to eat a banana. It’s a humorous way of measuring time.

Jayus (Indonesian) – A joke so poorly told and unfunny that one can’t help but laugh.

Sisu (Finnish) – Extraordinary determination and resilience, especially in the face of adversity.

Pålegg (Norwegian) – Anything and everything that can be put on a slice of bread, from cheese and ham to jams and spreads.

Tingo (Pascuense, Easter Island) – The act of borrowing objects one by one from a friend’s house until there’s nothing left.

Iktsuarpok (Inuit) – The anticipation one feels when waiting for someone to arrive, leading to constant checking outside.

Nunchi (Korean) – The ability to gauge someone’s mood and act accordingly, an intuitive social skill.

How do translators deal with untranslatable words?

Translators encounter untranslatable words regularly, and they employ various strategies to handle them effectively. Understanding the context in which the word is used is crucial. Translators might adapt the untranslatable term to the target language by using a concept or phrase that best fits the context.

When a direct translation isn’t feasible, translators often opt to paraphrase the meaning or provide an explanation that captures the essence of the untranslatable term in the target language. Some words, especially those specific to a culture, may be borrowed directly into the target language. Transliterating or using loanwords can retain the original meaning and cultural context.

Finding a term in the target language that conveys a similar cultural or emotional context, even if it’s not an exact translation, is a strategy often employed to maintain the intended impact. But in instances where the word holds significant cultural or contextual value, translators may opt to retain the original word with an explanation or gloss in the target language.

Final thoughts

Localization demands a deep understanding of the cultural context behind words that are hard to translate. It necessitates not just the translation of words, but navigating the subtle layers of meaning embedded in the original language and transposing them into the new cultural framework.

While some words may defy a direct one-to-one translation, the art of translation is a testament to human ingenuity and adaptability. Untranslatable words challenge translators to find creative solutions and convey the essence of a concept in a new linguistic home.

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