Which words are untranslatable? | Lingua Translations
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“Untranslatable” words in different languages

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In some languages, a simple word can capture a feeling or action perfectly. However when you try to translate these words into English, there are not always concise equivalents. As such a fascinating part of language, these unique words have been documented time and time again. Here are just a few examples:

Modorra
Spanish: the time you feel sleepy, example: “Me está dando toda la modorra”

Cafuné
Brazilian Portuguese: “The act of tenderly running one’s fingers through someone’s hair.”

Toska
Russian: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, and yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, and love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

Mamihlapinatapei
Yagan (indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego): “the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start”

Jayus
Indonesian: “A joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh”

Iktsuarpok
Inuit: “To go outside to check if anyone is coming.”

Litost
Czech: “As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it.” The closest definition is a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.

Prozvonit
Czech: This word means to call a mobile phone and let it ring once so that the other person will call back, saving the first caller money. In Spanish, the phrase for this is “Dar un toque,” or, “To give a touch.”

Kyoikumama
Japanese: “A mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement

Tartle
Scottish: The act of hestitating while introducing someone because you have forgotten their name.

Ilunga
Tshiluba (Southwest Congo): A word famous for its untranslatability, most professional translators pinpoint it as the stature of a person “who is ready to forgive and forget any first abuse, tolerate it the second time, but never forgive nor tolerate on the third offense.”

Are there equivalents for these words in your language? Perhaps there are other examples in your own language of words like these that have no reasonably simple translation? We would love to hear your thoughts.

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Sharon StephensAuthor posts

Sharon Stephens is Operations Director of Lingua Translation. With a First Class Honours Degree in Translation and a University Lecturer in Translation (Masters), she is a self confessed language geek! Bringing the academic principles of translation and business together Sharon offers a quality-driven and needs centric translation and interpreting service - like no other.

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