Learning a new language can be exciting, but also tricky. There are currently 7,117 known languages in the world, and among them are words and expressions that English speakers especially may have a hard time grasping. That’s because there are plenty of so-called untranslatable words out there.
What is an untranslatable word, you may ask?
“A word is untranslatable when there is no clear or obvious direct translation,” explains Michele Frolla, a language educator, author, travel journalist, and owner of The Intrepid Guide. “It can’t be translated with one word. It may require several words, a phrase, or several sentences to capture or convey the word’s meaning.”
An untranslatable word can be difficult and take some time to understand, but to language learners and language enthusiasts like Frolla, they can also be exciting and one of the best ways to learn a new language.
“As a language learner, one of the best ways to improve your speech and expand your vocabulary is by learning idiomatic expressions,” Frolla says. “Then there are terms that are commonly used and representative of that language but aren’t found in other languages.”
Not only do these untranslatable words help expand one’s vocabulary, but they also help expand one’s mind on the culture of the language they are trying to learn.
“Cultural awareness is where we gain the understanding that our own culture differs from one individual and group to the next, and more specifically, from our target language,” Frolla says. “Being culturally aware helps us recognize and have an appreciation for other’s values, customs, and beliefs and meet it without judgment or prejudice.”
While these untranslatable words may be difficult to understand, it’s more than just about getting a direct translation.
“Language is culture,” Frolla says. “So while an ‘untranslatable’ word can be explained using several words, I believe it may not necessarily be understood, not unless you spend significant time exposed to that culture and the people who speak that language. This is especially true for words that capture a culture’s outlook on life.”
I connected with language and travel experts for the most useful untranslatable words that you may find useful on your journeys. For an extensive list outside of travel words, check out Frolla’s post on 203 untranslatables. Along with Frolla, I received input from Javier Santana, the head of digital education at Lingoda; users of the site Crowdsourced Explorer; Amy from Walk and Eat Spain; and the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
The 27 best untranslatable travel words to use on your next adventure
- Abbiocco (Italian): That lazy feeling that you get once you have had a big, carb-filled meal.
- Ailyak (Bulgarian): Enjoying the experience of life calmly and without rushing.
- Akihi (Hawaiian): When you ask for directions then forget them immediately.
- Aspaldiko (Basque): Describes the happy feeling you get when you someone who you haven’t seen in a long time.
- Dérive (French): “How wonderful is it to get lost in unexplored territories letting yourself be guided by the wonders you encounter? A journey à la dérive indicates just that. A journey that follows an unexpected course, where the traveler lets himself be carried away by the spirit of the landscape and the surrounding architecture until he forgets who he is.” — Santana
- Dépaysement (French): The feeling of distress when you’re out of your native country.
- Dominguero (Spanish): “Spanish has a useful word to name that friend who wants to leave the city every Sunday to go to a nearby beach, mountain or theme park. Domingueros are always ready for a fun trip and live in a constant holiday mindset: they have the coolest umbrellas, towels, portable refrigerators, and holiday outfits. Note that you don’t need to leave the city on a Sunday (domingo) to be a dominguero, but if you truly are one you won’t mind getting stuck in a traffic jam on your way back home from your weekend trip, probably surrounded by other domingueros!” — Santana
- Duende (Spanish): “In Southern Spain, the word Duende refers to a mythical being that evokes strong emotions, especially those that possess you when you’re exposed to art. Flamenco dances are strongly linked to this concept, as an activity that evokes Spanish fiery passion: duende in this case refers to the powerful state of mind and ability of expression of the dancers that enchants the audience. Whether it’s attending a breathtaking flamenco performance, enjoying a stunning panorama or savoring the flavors of a land, every trip must have its fair share of duende.” — Santana
- Elefantenrennen (German): “Literally ‘elephant race,’ a situation in which one slow driver tries to pass another slightly slower driver, thereby obstructing the traffic behind them.” — CrowdsourcedExplorer.com
- Fernweh (German): The opposite of feeling homesick, essentially the fear of being away from a place that you never been too.
- Flâneur (French): Someone who enjoys walking the streets and taking in and appreciating the beauty of what’s around them.
- Gluggaveður (Icelandic):“Literally ‘window weather,’ weather that looks nice but in actuality is not.”— CrowdsourcedExplorer.com
- Greeng-jai (Thai): “A word that captures the feeling of being conscientious of having another person help you (even if they want to) because you don’t want to disturb them. It’s a personality characteristic but can also be used in a sentence: ‘no need to buy me a souvenir, greeng-jai.’” —Tourism Authority of Thailand
- Hiraeth (Welsh):“A feeling of melancholy and a sense of longing for a place that never existed.”— CrowdsourcedExplorer.com
- Hyggelig (Danish):
“An adjective describing a warm, cozy, friendly atmosphere — e.g., hot mulled mead with close friends in front of a cozy fireplace.” — CrowdsourcedExplorer.com
- Jijivisha (Hindi): Wanting to live your life to the fullest you can.
- Mâi bpen rai (Thai): “You can use it in reply to ‘thank you’ and it has more meaning than a simple ‘you’re welcome.’ The connotation is a bit like, ‘you’re welcome and I don’t need any more help.’ Perfect if someone helps you with directions and you want to emphasis that you can take it from there.” — Tourism Authority of Thailand
- Ré nao (Mandarin): A place with a fun and entertaining vibe where you just want to be.
- Resfeber (Swedish): The worry and anxiety one gets before going on a trip.
- Samar (Arabic): Having a good time with friends staying up after the sun has went down.
- Schilderwald (German): A street overflooded with so many signs they don’t help you find your way and instead make it easy to get lost.
- Sehnsucht (German): “Sehnsucht consists of two words: Sehn from sehnen (to see) and sucht (addiction, craving). Literally, it means a yearning, an inner, painful desire for something unattainable, e.g. love, travel, or freedom. When you think more specifically about travel, for example, you can ‘sehnsucht haben’ for far off places. As a traveler, it is easy to identify with that yearning feeling when you remember a place that you hold dear to your heart and to which you would love to return. True sehnsucht.” — Santana
- Sobremesa (Spanish): “The time after a meal finishes when everyone sits around the table finishing their drinks and chatting. Magic happens during the sobremesa. No one is rushing to leave, everyone has settled into their seats and this is when the best conversations happen. It is practically a sacred practice particularly after a big weekend lunch (which will often last until 7-8pm!)” — Amy from Walk and Eat Spain
- Tapear(Spanish): “Literally this translates into a verb “to tapa” but the way it is used in Spanish is about so much more than a small plate of food. The act of “doing” tapas is about meeting friends, sharing food and drinks and building your own dinner adventure. It’s about popping in to say hello to that bar owner who’s been serving you the best Spanish omelet in the city for a decade, who knows you by name and asks about your family. The word somehow encapsulates the spontaneity and unplanned nature of hopping from tapas bar to tapas bar, the social idea of meeting friends and sharing food and the tantalizing deliciousness that are the physical plates of food.” — Amy from Walk and Eat Spain
- Trouvaille (French): “A trouvaille is something we all hope to experience on our next trip. It literally means lucky find (from the verb trouver, to find), and indicates a lucky encounter with something wonderful. Whether it’s a cafe tucked away in an old alley, a small lake hidden in the middle of the mountains, or a field of flowers on the other side of a hill, it will leave us speechless and feeling like we’ve found a priceless treasure.” — Santana
- Waldeinsamkeit (German): “The profound connection you feel when you’re alone (einsam) in a forest (wald), deeply connected to nature and your surroundings. The ‘loneliness of the forest’ even represents an ideal of purity that poets like Heinrich Heine and religious people have felt strongly in their spiritual retreats. Many travelers look precisely for these feelings when purposefully getting lost in some of the world’s most beautiful forests!” — Santana
- Yoko meshi (Japanese): The stress you feel while trying to speak a foreign language.
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