Photo: Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock

10 Foreign Words We Just Can't Translate

by Tereza Jarnikova Apr 10, 2013

If we think of a language as a framework within which expression takes place, it becomes clear that no two frameworks express exactly the same set of ideas. There is a word for “water” in every language, but not all languages have a word for, say, “a vaguely melancholy nostalgia for something that is not yet gone.”

I think there’s a long-held general fascination with the grey edges of language frameworks, the peripheries where languages do not overlap. Last week I asked my friends (and the internet) for words and phrases from these peripheries. For obvious reasons, I do not know exactly, with all inflections and shades of meaning, what they mean. It’s nonetheless fun to imagine being able to.

1. Nehrotit to

This is a Czech expression that finds use in many situations. Literally, it means “Not to make [the situation] into a sharp point.” Its literal meaning is almost equivalent to a shrug of the shoulders, a declaration that one is not going to stress about something, or, more generally, that one is not going to stress about anything.

There’s some sort of combination of self-deprecating humour and cynicism implied in the meaning as well. It’s a diffusion of seriousness.

2. Je l’ai câlissée là

From Québecois French. To break up with a romantic partner in French is casser avec quelqu’un. Calisse is a strong Québecois swearword which literally means “chalice,” specifically a chalice in which to hold the wine that represents / is the blood of Christ. (For reasons that took me about three years to understand, Québecois swears all have something to do with religious artifacts used by the Catholic church.)

Replacing casser with calisse gives Je l’ai câlissée là, “I broke up with the person in a painful or abrupt way” (or, literally, “I chalice holding the blood of Christ with that person”). This, along with about 50 other Québecois swears of escalating severity, was explained to me one summer by my dear friend Guillaume. He enjoyed swearing, smoking, telling stories, and complaining about Albertans, all of which somewhat characterize Quebec.

3. Sisu

This is a Finnish word which can be approximated with the words “fortitude,” or “grit,” or “perseverance,” or “resolve to overcome obstacles.” It’s another famously untranslatable word that Finns claim to be at some centre of the Finnish national identity.

Such a word makes some sense for a nation that is completely dark for part of the year, has a native population of reindeer herders, and enjoys a sport that combines skiing long distances with shooting a gun.

4. Aus dem nähkästchen reden

This is a phrase in German which means “out of the little sewing box.” It’s used when one is gossiping to friends about family matters. It’s very cute. If we had a phrase like this in Czech, I can very well imagine my maternal grandmother using it while serving strudel and tea.

5. Hygge

Widely said to be central to Danish culture, hygge is often translated into English as “coziness.” However, the connotations reach much deeper than mere coziness can convey. I’ve heard it described as an attention to living life simply and well, to enjoying everyday things like good food, beer, and the company of friends.

The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Danes has this to say:

Hygge has to do with people’s behavior towards each other. It is the art of creating intimacy: a sense of comradeship, conviviality, and contentment rolled into one.

I think I want to live for the idea of hygge.

6. Treppenwitz

In German, this is literally “the wit of the staircase,” or the witty remark that occurs to you after you’ve left an argument you’ve lost. It’s a feeling everyone knows rather well.

There is also a phrase for this phenomenon in French: l’esprit d’escalier, or “the spirit of the staircase.” The French writer Denis Diderot came up with it during the Enlightenment, and it’s still used today — I think the pain of coming up with a comeback too late is a universal human burden that survives the ages.

7. Fremdschämen

It seems Germans are masters at clever words for specific situations (also: urban planning, consonants, capital letters, and umlauts). This is a word for the embarrassment one feels at watching someone else embarrass themselves, a sort of secondhand awkwardness.

I grew up with a subconscious belief that I was the only one who ever felt this, so it’s rather comforting to know certain languages have a whole word for it.

8. Ayurnamat

In Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit people, ayurnamat roughly translates as the philosophy that there is no point in worrying about events that cannot be changed. Another translation I found was along the lines of: “That’s the way of it, can’t be helped, better luck next time.”

I’ve never visited Nunavut, but the tales I hear of long nights, inhospitable landscapes, and the stoic cold make sense in this context.

9. Donaldkacsázás

This is a neologism that can be literally translated as “donald ducking.” or wandering around one’s house wearing a shirt and no trousers. The idea that a quirk of an old Disney cartoon character has entered the Hungarian collective subconscious enough to merit its own word makes me smile, as does my own mental image of an older man with a mustache puttering around the house in house slippers and white-collared shirt.

10. Saudade

Often brought up in conversations about untranslatability, saudade is a Portuguese word that vaguely means longing or nostalgia for a person one loves, but there are dimensions to this nostalgia that don’t translate outside of the limits of the language. Someone once called it, “vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist.”

I feel that I can approximate understanding in this case, but I cannot feel it wholly. It’s linguistically marvelous to be able to express a specific emotion so succinctly. In Brazil, the day of saudade is celebrated on January 30th.

Bonus: Jebač

Technically, jebač has an extremely literally translation: “fucker.” However, while in English this is a swearword, for Slovaks (who according to my personal observations must have one of the highest rates of swearwords per capita in the world) it’s a compliment.

If you stop and think about that, this does make some logical sense, but I’ve nevertheless been laughing to myself about it all week.

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