German – Quite famous for its meaning that somehow other languages neglected to recognize, this refers to the feeling of pleasure derived by seeing another’s misfortune. I guess “America’s Funniest Moments of Schadenfreude” just didn’t have the same ring to it.
German – Translated literally, this word means “gate-closing panic,” but its contextual meaning refers to “the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages.” (Altalang.com)
Japanese – Much has been written on this Japanese concept, but in a sentence, one might be able to understand it as “a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay.” (Altalang.com)
French – The feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country.
Pascuense (Easter Island) – Hopefully this isn’t a word you’d need often: “the act of taking objects one desires from the house of a friend by gradually borrowing all of them.” (Altalang.com)
Danish – Its “literal” translation into English gives connotations of a warm, friendly, cozy demeanor, but it’s unlikely that these words truly capture the essence of a hyggelig; it’s likely something that must be experienced to be known. I think of good friends, cold beer, and a warm fire. (Altalang.com)
17. L’appel du vide
French – “The call of the void” is this French expression’s literal translation, but more significantly it’s used to describe the instinctive urge to jump from high places.
Arabic – Both morbid and beautiful at once, this incantatory word means “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.
Spanish – While originally used to describe a mythical, spritelike entity that possesses humans and creates the feeling of awe of one’s surroundings in nature, its meaning has transitioned into referring to “the mysterious power that a work of art has to deeply move a person.” There’s actually a nightclub in the town of La Linea de la Concepcion, where I teach, named after this word. (Altalang.com)
Portuguese – One of the most beautiful of all words, translatable or not, this word “refers to the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost.” Fado music, a type of mournful singing, relates to saudade. (Altalang.com)
For myself, the hardest part about learning a new language isn’t so much getting acquainted with the translations of vocabulary and different grammatical forms and bases, but developing an inner reflex that responds to words’ texture, not their translated “ingredients”. When you hear the word “criminal” you don’t think of “one who commits acts outside the law,” but rather the feeling and mental imagery that comes with that word.
Thus these words, while standing out due to our inability to find an equivalent word in out own language, should not be appreciated for our own words that we try to use to describe them, but for their own taste and texture. Understanding these words should be like eating the best slab of smoked barbequeued ribs: the enjoyment doesn’t come from knowing what the cook put in the sauce or the seasoning, but from the full experience that can only be created by time and emotion.
Do you know any other words that don’t translate into other languages?
For more language fun, check out 20 More Awesomely Untranslatable Words and 20 Obsolete English Words that Should Make a Comeback.
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Jason Wire graduated from Vanderbilt University in 2010 and spent the year after writing and teaching English in Spain. He's back in the states now, but doesn't know where. Follow him @wirejr.
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