Language Log has not so far commented on Jason Wire's 20 Awesomely Untranslatable Words from Around the World on the Matador Network. You might expect (since I yield to no Language Log writer in the fierceness of my hatred for things-people-have-no-words-for genre of writing about language) that I would hate it like poison. But in fact I rather liked it. I just want to point out, however, that not a single one of the words shows any of the promised untranslatability.
Here are the words, with their languages of origin, and in each case a translation (derived from what Jason himself supplies in his article):
|toska||Russian||dull ache of the soul stemming from longing or pining|
|mamihlapinatapei||Yagan||meaningful look between two people each reluctant to be the initiator|
|jayus||Indonesian||joke told so poorly that one cannot help laughing|
|iktsuarpok||Inuit||go outside to see if anyone is coming|
|litost||Czech||agony and torment sparked by the sudden apperception of one's own misery|
|kyoikumama||Japanese||mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement|
|tartle||Scots||hestitate while introducing someone because you forgot their name|
|ilunga||Tshiluba||person who will forgive a first offense and tolerate a second but takes a third offense very seriously|
|prozvonit||Czech||call a cellphone once so the other person will call back on their dime|
|cafuné||Brazilian Portuguese||tenderly run one's fingers through a person's hair|
|Schadenfreude||German||glee at another's misfortune|
|Torschlusspanik||German||gate-closing panic as age begins to close off opportunities|
|wabi-sabi||Japanese||way of living that peacefully accepts the natural cycle of growth and decay|
|dépaysement||French||the feeling of not being in one's own country|
|tingo||Pascuense||obtain desired objects from a friend by borrowing them one by one|
|hyggelig||Danish||warm, friendly experience with friends|
|l'appel du vide||French||that "call of the void" that makes you feel you want to jump when you look down from somewhere up high|
|ya'aburnee||Arabic||you bury me (said to someone you would miss so much that you hope you die first)|
|duende||Spanish||mysterious power of an artwork to move someone|
|saudade||Portuguese||longing for someone or something that you love but have lost|
A nice selection of words with complex meanings and interesting potential functions. But what is the notion of untranslatability here? It seems to have been confused with "lack of an exact one-word equivalent".
Who on earth ever argued that translatability only exists when source text words are mapped bijectively to target words, each with exactly the same shade of meaning as the corresponding source word? Does French jeune fille fail to translate English girl, and ne … pas fail to translate not? Does English fall down fail to translate French tomber, and look at fail to translate regarder? What kind of madness is this?
If every translation has to have exactly the same number of words as the original text (and moreover, if each word in the translation has to be the exact equivalent of exactly one in the original), then there are no translations of anything and there never have been and all translators and interpreters are confidence tricksters earning money through false pretenses. But nobody ever seriously suggested any such thing.
Your language may use a phrase where mine uses a single word, and vice versa. We can still come to understand each other perfectly. The list of words is very nice, but the untranslatability claim is self-evidently untrue.
Jason couldn't have meant "untranslatable". He must have meant something else, perhaps something genuinely untranslatable.