Illustrated translations of the untranslatable

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"Beautiful Illustrations of Words with No English Equivalent",Twisted Sifter 5/16/2015.

As usual, many of the translations seem to be somewhat more specifically evocative than the words they translate.

Thus Spanish duende is rendered as "The mysterious power that a work of art has to deeply move a person", whereas the WordReference dictionary gives simply "spirit, magical creature; elf, imp, goblin; magic, charm", and the Collins dictionary gives "goblin, elf; imp; magic; gremlin".

And Japanese baku-shan, rendered as "A beautiful girl — as long as she is viewed from behind", seems to be a combination of two borrowed words: English back, borrowed as baku バック "back", and German schön, borrowed as shan シヤン "beautiful".

I'll leave the analysis of the other illustrations to those who know the languages involved.

[h/t David Donnell]


  1. Walter said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 3:47 am

    I love the illustrations, but the lack of umlauts on the Scandivian words is such a shame.

  2. Stan Carey said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 4:05 am

    Much of Edward Hirsch's book The Demon and the Angel: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration is an attempt to describe duende, following Lorca.

  3. Tom S. Fox said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 5:25 am

    “A beautiful girl — as long as she is viewed from behind”

    There is a perfect English translation for that: “butterface”

  4. Tom S. Fox said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 5:40 am

    I think most languages have a word for “a chronically unlucky person.”

  5. maidhc said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 5:53 am

    French has no word for "food"!

    Chinese food: cuisine chinoise
    dog food: nourriture pour chien
    organic food: alimentation biologique

  6. jonathan Mayhew said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 6:12 am

    I argue in Apocryphal Lorca (U of Chicago P, 2009) that the duende has become a trope for the untranslatable itself. (Forgive the self-promotion.). The "mysterious power" definition derives from Lorca and his appropriation of the term as used in flamenco, whereas the duende is also a kind of impish folkloric figure, the "dueño de la casa."

  7. Greg Ralph said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 6:42 am

    Mysterious power was already being used in the 13th century by the English traveller Master Gregory, who tells of a statue so beautiful in Rome that he was drawn back three times to see it, by "who knows what magical persuasion" despite the fact that it was some miles from his lodgings:
    Haec autem imago a Romanis Veneri dedicata fuit in ea forma, in qua iuxta fabulam cum Iunone et Pallade Paridi in temerario examine dicitur Venus se nudam exhibuisse. Quam temerarius arbiter intuens inquit:
    Iudicio nostro vincit utramque Venus.
    Haec autem imago ex Pario marmore tam miro et inexplicabili perfecta est artificio, ut magis viva creatura videatur quam statua: erubescenti etenim nuditatem suam similis, faciem purpureo colore perfusam gerit. Videturque comminus aspicientibus in niveo ore imaginis sanguinem natare. Hanc autem propter mirandam speciem et nescio quam magicam persuasionem ter coactus sum revisere, cum ab hospitio meo duobus stadiis distaret.

  8. Rohan Fenwick said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 8:07 am

    The Norwegian pålegg is interesting; in my work with Ubykh, I very early came across the word ʧáʁʲa and its Turkish equivalent, katık, which don't have a neat gloss into English but seem to be more or less equivalent to pålegg – that is, any food eaten on or accompanying bread (one of the most fundamental of staples in Turkey). I wonder how many other languages have a simple equivalent term.
    For what it's worth, the Ubykh word seems to be a compound, from ʧa "milk" + ʁʲa "meat".

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 8:54 am

    Greg Ralph: But was that the magical persuasion of the Angel, the Muse, or the Duende?

    By the way, in northern New Mexican Spanish, "duende" means a real person with dwarfism.

  10. Vance Maverick said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 8:57 am

    I was pretty sure "duende" would call Jonathan Mayhew from the vasty deep. Yes, this is very silly — words may have narrow uses and broad ones. We can play this game in English too. I'll bet Korean doesn't have a word for "swing" — if we restrict that to the sense without which it doesn't mean a thing.

  11. Bean said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 9:34 am

    @maidhc: I disagree, if you ask a French speaker the French word for food they will say "nourriture". It's a testament to the importance of food in French culture that they distinguish between cuisine, food, and whatever they mean by "alimentation" (nourishment? sustenance? it's a very formal word anyway, I wouldn't use it to refer to what we're having for supper), and in English we just use the catch-all "food" for all three…

  12. Francois Lang said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 9:45 am

    "a mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement""

    Kyoikumama == "Tiger Mom"

  13. Patrick Cox said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 9:59 am

    Also, there is an English equivalent for "schadenfreude." It's "schadenfreude."

  14. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 10:03 am

    I wasn't aware that I was in the deep. I am in Buenos Aires, though. Maybe that counts.

  15. JHH said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 10:09 am

    In response to Rohan Fenwick:

    In Japan, a meal is thought of as rice (and soup and pickles) accompanied by other dishes. These other dishes are collectively called "o-kazu."

  16. KeithB said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 10:16 am

    Doesn't "sublime" kid of carry the meaning they are attributing to duende?

  17. Adrian Morgan said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 10:26 am

    Coincidentally, after letting it sit for a few days in the browser bookmark folder I use as my read-later queue, I tweeted a link to the Twisted Sifter article earlier today. (In my tweet I said it "isn't archive-worthy for me", an evaluation that is no more derogatory than "semifinalist" and simply means I don't plan to link to it from my blog.)

    Seeing Language Log publish a link on the same day feels strange, as if Mark Liberman is reading my mind.

    In my tweet I also mentioned that baku-shan reminds me of a memory from my uni days, but I'm not going to share that memory here.

  18. JB said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 11:11 am

    Isn't "luftmensch" more or less "space cadet"?

  19. Steve said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 11:24 am

    With Tagalog, there are several Spanish loan words.

    duende came to be spelled as dwende and used as a term for dwarves or a particular type of elemental that dwells in a molehill.

  20. Rumiko Sode said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 11:36 am

    Interesting choice, of all choices of hard-to-translate words in Japanese! The word "back shan" is so ancient I know its meaning only because I heard it probably from my Meiji-born grandmother and possibly my 88 year old mom. The author must have picked it up from a pre-WWII source. Not in currency in today's Japan, unless someone deliberately uses it as a 'period' item.
    Words with heavy cultural associations and references need to be translated simply first, then carefully placed in their historical and cultural context. Heavy footnotes.

  21. Neil Dolinger said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 11:42 am

    It's interesting how many languages (Mandarin and Italian for two, though not English) associate the concept of a meal with the starch component.

    Re "baka-shan" and "butterface". Not to get all Urban Dictionary, but there is another term with a similar sense that I first heard in college, "two-bagger". I'l leave it to you to look up the origin, but it does have the advantage over the other two of being completely gender non-specific.

  22. Neil Dolinger said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 11:47 am

    Hopefully somewhat on-topic, my wife had a friend in college who was from Korea. Her friend was surprised to learn that English had no word to describe (paraphrasing) "that feeling you get between your eyebrows when you hear a particularly moving piece of music".

    Could any native speakers of Korean here confirm that Korean has such a word (or at least one that describes the eyebrow-feeling part)?

  23. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 12:59 pm

    Irish is another language with a word for "non-starch component of a meal", namely anlann. In addition, it covers the same ground as English "sauce" and "condiment" and features in the common proverb Is maith an t-anlann an t-ocras "Hunger is the best sauce".

  24. John O'Toole said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 1:15 pm

    Off to a phenomenal start: the very first illustration, of "the amount of water that can be held in a hand," shows us… two cupped hands. The illustration involves a yepsen or gowpen, or gowpenful of water. Jeeze, why go all the way to Arabia for such exotics?

  25. Bob Ladd said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 1:19 pm

    @ Neil Dolinger: I can't think of any obvious sense in which Italian equates meals with the starchy component. Are you confusing Italian pasto 'meal' with pasta? The two words are actually unrelated etymologically (pasto is ultimately related to English pasture, and pasta to English paste).

  26. Fernando Colina said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 1:21 pm

    @Neil Dolinger: English too, at least among Christians: "Our father who art in heaven […] give us this day our daily bread…"

  27. Vance Maverick said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 1:57 pm

    To Neil Dolinger — perhaps one has to have a certain cultural background for moving music to be associated with particular physical sensations at all. In which case it might literally be untranslatable, except (with some license) to languages where musical experience was localized in other parts of the body.

  28. Bastian said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 2:00 pm

    German has 'Belag' for anything that you can put on bread without smearing it (which would be Aufstrich). Could be cognate to the Norwegian term. Also, many Bantu languages of Eastern Africa have a term for anything that goes with the starchy main component of the meal, covering meat or fish as well as vegetables.

  29. Jen said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 6:17 pm

    'Pålegg' is just 'laid on', isn't it? If 'filling' won't do because English speakers tend to use two slices of bread where Scandinavians would use one, how about 'topping'? Or does that have to be sweet?

  30. Adrian Morgan said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 7:01 pm

    @Jen Well, "topping" is regularly used in English for everything you put on a pizza…

  31. Gene Callahan said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 9:23 pm

    @Bean: But quite obviously, English *does* distinguish between "food," "cuisine," "nourishment," etc. as your own comment shows!

  32. maidhc said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 11:46 pm

    Rohan Fenwick:
    In Greece at the time of Socrates, rather than saying "food and drink" as we do, they had a tripartite division: sitos, opson and potos. Sitos was bread of some kind, opson what you put on the bread, and potos water or wine. It was an insult to call someone an opsophagos, a relish-eater, someone who wanted the extras without the staple.

    By the time of the New Testament, the diminutive opsarion had come to mean exclusively "seafood". It bears the same relation to ichthus as pork does to pig. In the NT it is found only in John, referring to fish that are about to be eaten. It is the source of the modern Greek word for fish, psari.

    This and much more interesting information in James Davidson's Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens.

  33. Biscia said,

    May 22, 2015 @ 2:23 am

    @Rohan Fenwick, in Italian that would be companatico: from con (with) + pane (bread). Imaginative, eh?

  34. Graeme said,

    May 22, 2015 @ 3:22 am

    'Space cadet' and 'airhead' are synonymous, but pejoratives
    Is 'luftmensch' necessarily pejorative?

    And is 'gurfa' limited to water? Otherwise 'handful' in the literal sense seems to capture its 'measure'

  35. Graeme said,

    May 22, 2015 @ 3:40 am

    'Luftmensch' strikes me as a cross between drifter and dreamer.

  36. jimmij said,

    May 22, 2015 @ 9:55 am

    As a native Spanish speaker, the translations of 'duende' by Wordreference and Collins are definitely lacking. The dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy says:

    1. m. Espíritu fantástico del que se dice que habita en algunas casas y que travesea, causando en ellas trastorno y estruendo. Aparece con figura de viejo o de niño en las narraciones tradicionales.
    4. m. pl. And. Encanto misterioso e inefable. 'Los duendes del cante flamenco.'

    Meaning 1 corresponds to the "dwarf, goblin" translation, which definitely has some equivalents in English. Meaning 4 says "Chiefly Andalusian, mysterious and ineffable charm", and is the untranslatable meaning your link refers to. It is very connected to the art of Flamenco and, to be honest, I have never heard it used in any other context. I would never describe anything other than a Flamenco artist or performance as having 'duende'. Actually, I would never even use the word in that sense, because I am from the north of Spain and I would sound ridiculous.

  37. Mark F. said,

    May 22, 2015 @ 9:58 am

    I don't know about any of the specific cases, but in general it's probably more reasonable to talk about senses than words. If someone says "Spanish has a word for X and English doesn't," I think it's fair to interpret that as "Spanish has a word one of whose senses specifically means X, and English doesn't." I could imagine it being the case that duende has involved a distinctive sense in talking about art that could be translated as "power" but has more specificity and evocativeness. If that's true then I think it's pretty reasonable to include it in a list like that, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a language dictionary not picking that sense up out of the more mundane ones.

    It's a tragedy of bilingual dictionaries that they insist on giving one-word glosses when many (most?) cross-language pairs of words have non-identical sets of senses. Better would be to link (say) a Spanish-English dictionary to a full English dictionary, and annotate the one-word glosses with numbers indicating which senses are meant. Where no word offers the right sense, just write a definition.

  38. shubert said,

    May 22, 2015 @ 10:38 am

    In English-Chinese dictionary, many words do not pair with Chinese characters. Such as strand, stock share a same 股 gu. Most of those trivial words are left as "singles".

  39. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 22, 2015 @ 10:52 am

    I don't think (in the varieties of English with which I am familiar) that airhead and space cadet are synonymous. Airhead just = lack of brains, whereas space cadet is more an update of older idioms like "has his/her head in the clouds," meaning not focused/aware of what others think is the salient issue at hand, lost in dreams/fantasies, disengaged from reality, etc. Luftmensch is probably reasonably close to space cadet. I think the "luft" in Luftmensch is instantiating a metaphor similar to that of "air" in English "airy-fairy" (for impractical), which contrasts with e.g. "down to earth" or "grounded."

  40. Roger Lustig said,

    May 22, 2015 @ 9:07 pm

    To hear this blog tell it, Luftmensch is a complicated matter.

  41. James Kabala said,

    May 22, 2015 @ 11:40 pm

    jimmij: "Duende" in a broader sense (not quite the same sense given above) was (somewhat) popularized in the United States by the Boston journalist George Frazier.

  42. David Donnell said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 1:48 am

    A vieil ami offered this commentary:

    Lavern and Shirley [American sitcom characters] used "Schlimazl" in tandem with "Schlemiel", and now that you have provided the definition of one half of that familiar phrase, I felt incomplete not knowing exactly what a "Schlemiel" was. According to my googling, a Schlemiel is a "chronic bungler, a chump for whom things never work out". And upon further analysis, I also find this for context: "The schlemiel spills his soup, and the schlimazl is the person it lands on."

  43. Mark Mandel said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 10:43 am

    @David Donnell, there's often a third component for that saying:"… and the schmegeggie gets the blame".

  44. Alex Bollinger said,

    May 24, 2015 @ 7:38 am

    @patrick cox: I was going to say the same thing. Merriam Webster agrees, too, that "schadenfreude" is an English word. Because if we go down that path, then there are quite a few things there are no words for in English simply because the words came from another language.

    I also quibble with the illustration for "gurfa" – the definition given and another that I looked up to confirm both specify that it's the water that can be held in *one* hand, not two.

  45. Alex Bollinger said,

    May 24, 2015 @ 7:47 am

    @roger: Interesting link!

    I have to agree that "airhead" or "space cadet" really don't capture its essence. It references such a specific economic and cultural position that there's no need for such a word in English for people who wouldn't already know what "luftmensch" means anyway.

  46. Peter Shea said,

    May 25, 2015 @ 10:41 am

    I assume that schlimazl, referring to a person who is a jinx to himself, is a combination of schlimm (Ger.: bad/evil) and mazel (Heb.: luck).

  47. Jack said,

    May 26, 2015 @ 1:41 am

    As far as I know, Backschön or something similar to it is in fact used in German, at least in some areas, so it could have been taken directly from German to Japanese.

  48. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    May 26, 2015 @ 2:01 pm

    If Backschön is used in German, this would have to be a reloan of the Japanese term, since Back- does not have the meaning of "behind" but rather "bake", e.g. Backfisch "a baked fish; a fish for baking; [dated, slang] a teenage girl".

  49. Mark said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 7:43 am

    Luftmensch is like the brother-in-law who always has some new but not quite tangible scheme dreamed up for fame and fortune.
    Shlimazel is actually from hebrew: sh lo mazal (that has no luck) cf mazal tov (good luck).
    So to German Jews a Luftmensch is a kind of an optimistic shlimazel, I know a few such people.

  50. Mark said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 7:49 am

    No, Backpfeifengesicht is supposed to mean "slappable face", thats probably what you are referring to.
    In the USA I have seen "butterface"?

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