“Untranslatable” Words from other Cultures

The relationship between words and their meaning is a fascinating one, and linguists have spent countless years deconstructing it,  trying to figure out why there are so many feelings and ideas that we cannot even put words to, and that our languages cannot identify. This post is from Ella Frances Sanders, writer and illustrator.

Somehow narrowing it down to just a handful, we’ve illustrated some of these wonderful, elusive, words, which have no single word within the English language that could be considered a direct translation. We hope that you enjoy recognizing a feeling or two of your own among them.

1. German: Waldeinsamkeit

A feeling of solitude, being alone in the woods and a connection to nature. Ralph Waldo Emerson even wrote a whole poem about it.

2. Italian: Culaccino

The mark left on a table by a cold glass. Who knew condensation could sound so poetic.

3. Inuit: Iktsuarpok

The feeling of anticipation that leads you to go outside and check if anyone is coming, and probably also indicates an element of impatience.

4.Japanese: Komorebi

This is the word the Japanese have for when sunlight filters through the trees – the interplay between the light and the leaves.

5. Russian: Pochemuchka

                    Someone who asks a lot of questions. In fact, probably too many questions. We all know a few of these.

6. Spanish: Sobremesa

Spaniards tend to be a sociable bunch, and this word describes the period of time after a meal when you have food-induced conversations with the people you have shared the meal with.

9.French: Dépaysement

The feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country – of being a foreigner, or an immigrant, of being somewhat displaced from your origin.

10. Urdu: Goya

tumblr_ms5eftJAmq1qz6f9yo1_500.png

The suspension of disbelief that can comes when reading a good tale.

The idea that words cannot always express everything has been written about extensively. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon the absolute truth.”

‘Through The Language Glass’ by Guy Deutscher, goes a long way to explaining and understanding these loopholes; the gaps which mean there are leftover words without translations, and concepts that cannot be properly explained across cultures. But wait! Ella Frances Sanders,  author of Lost in Translation (a New York Times bestseller)  has now published a charming illustrated collection of more than fifty expressions from around the globe that explore the nuances of language: The Illustrated Book of Sayings For more see: http://ellafrancessanders.com/the-illustrated-book-of-sayings

I love words don’t you?  One of my favorites is “callipygous” as in a callipygous young lady; Aphrodite was callipygian i.e. “had beautiful buttocks.”   😉  Do you have any to share?

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9 thoughts on ““Untranslatable” Words from other Cultures

  1. You might like this untranslatable example of Afrikaans slang ‘DONER-SE SHIT’ pronounced ‘dawnas uh shit’ which is an exclamation meaning ‘BLOODY HELL!’
    I have a library of them but I’m a bit busy right now.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One beautiful word: cinnamon. Another curious, ticklish word: repentine. (Found between repentful and repenting in the OED, yet has nothing to do with penance, but means sudden … go figure!)

    Like

  3. Callipygous is a pleasant word. According to wikipedia, there are various statues of Venus Kallipygos, inspired by a 2000-year-old Roman statue.

    It is fascinating how language groups consider a concept important enough to pack into a single word or short phrase, and how difficult it can be to render it in another language. Everything can be translated, but not everything can be translated elegantly.

    Liked by 2 people

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