Translating the untranslatable

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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.


  1. gameswithwords said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

    I also love people who tell you about an untranslatable word and the follow it up with a translation (Bill Bryson's mind-numbing Mother Tongue was a good example). It makes you wonder if they think about what they're saying or if, as you say, they have a completely different (and nonsensical) definition of "untranslatable."

  2. Leonardo Boiko said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

    As a native speaker of Portuguese, I’m always annoyed by the nationalistic claims of “saudade” being some mysterious, lofty untranslatable feeling. As far as I can tell it refers precisely to the same thing as in English sentences like “I miss you” or “I long for my hometown", as well as Japanese 懐かしい, e.g. オープニングテーマが懐かしい. I’m fairly sure all languages must have a way of expressing such a natural emotion.

  3. richard howland-bolton said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

    You are of course absolutely right, however at the very least 'jayus' is definitely gonna be added to MY vocab :-)

    [(myl) You may change your mind when you learn, from Stevens' and Schmidgall-Tellings' Comprehensive Indonesian-English Dictionary, that jayus actually means "not funny, stupid (of jokes)". One trouble with these lists of neat-o words in other languages is that the quality of the glosses is often low — when the cited words exist at all.]

  4. nemryn said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

    You might even say that 'Schadenfreude' translates into English as 'Schadenfreude'.

  5. ~flow said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

    i actually do not find the claim altogether unreasonable. i mean, how many people could come up with reasonable translations (as opposed to explanations) in their mother tongue? i find it not an easy exercise.

    btw 教育まま has a nice analogue in german (that can serve as a real translation), Eislaufmutter. guess that's baseball mother or somesuch in a us-american context. of course, if you use that translation in context, it may turn out completely unsuitable. you may end up with a circumlocution like "ehrgeizige Mutter".

  6. Janine Libbey said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    You hit the nail on the head!: "But what is the notion of untranslatability here? It seems to have been confused with "lack of an exact one-word equivalent".

  7. Boudica said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:01 pm

    I think there is a point to be made when we don't have a one word translation for something in another language. It may mean that the feeling/occurrence in the other culture doesn't happen enough in our culture to warrant a one word name. Such as "prozvonit". What does it say about Czech culture that they have a word for such an action?

  8. Xmun said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:02 pm

    In these days of the global village surely a German suffering from Torschlusspanik would be able to find consolation from a Japanese offering wabi-sabi?

  9. mpg said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

    While I'll usually go along with the usual grumbling about the language L not having a single word for concept C, an interesting thought experiment just occurred to me:

    What if we did get 20 experts (whatever that means) to pick their favorite 20 untranslatable words from various languages: what language(s) would appear in the lists most frequently?

    In the above list, I see Czech, German, Portuguese, Japanese, and French all appearing twice. But it's not a large enough sample yet to be useful.

    whose favorite they-don't-have-a-word-for-that-in-language-L is "defenestrate"

  10. DL said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

    … I'm fairly sure that Schadenfreude could be translated into the Chinese 幸災樂禍… the only difference is its tendency to be used as a verb instead of a noun, ie, 'feeling/expressing glee at another's misfortune'.

    Which means this word, at least, should be 'translatable' even by Jason's standards.

  11. Marcus Lira said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

    I'm a native speaker of (Brazilian) Portuguese, and I just want to point out that you don't need to have lost the object of your affection in order to feel saudade(s): it just means "to miss (something or someone)", so it's quite easy to translate it into English – you just have to use a verb instead of a noun. If this counted as "being untranslatable", like you said, I wonder why he didn't add the word "crooked/bent" in Japanese and so on, because it's often said with a verb while we use adjectives both in English and in Portuguese… but it's easy to realise he didn't do it because it doesn't sound nearly as deep. And can you blame him for this? Don't we want to imagine a given culture is so special they have words we can't say because their worldview is not like ours, thus making both groups unique?

    I often correct smug Brazilians when they brag about speaking a language with such a meaningful word as "saudade(s)" (no one ever cares about cafuné), so bound to our culture that it can't be said in any other language. Not only is it based on the misconception you mentioned that a noun in one language can't be a verb in another, but another Romance language has a similar noun with the same meaning: "Dor", in Romanian. Ironically, I learnt it when a Romanian girl told me they had a special word in their language that couldn't be translated… and when she did translate, I couldn't help but chuckle.

  12. Nathan said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

    @Boudica: Sure, it may mean that, but probably not. Look at the English/French examples in the post. I don't think the existence or not of a single word with a given meaning in a given language is likely to say anything deep and Whorfian about the people who speak it. Spanish has the word paragüero 'umbrella stand'; does that mean umbrellas or their stands are more special to Spanish speakers than to English speakers?

  13. John Cowan said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

    No, none of these are untranslatable. The real untranslatable words are things like hottentottententententoonstelling 'Hottentot tent exhibition'. I mean, you can't just replace that word with its English gloss. You'd have to find something in English with similar impact, and where can you find that? Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and ultramicroscopicosilicovolcanoconiosis just don't cut it.

    Or you could go with hard, which cannot be translated into German because in a given context you need one of about 40 German adjectives, of which the only one I remember offhand is alkoholisch.

  14. Maria said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

    I actually think some words do have a cultural content that makes it hard to translate the feeling they evoke, although it might be relatively simple to describe the literal meaning. Maybe that's what they mean by untranslatable?

    One example I've tried to translate in the past is the Argentine "chanta". It's a slang word used for someone who's a little lazy, a little bit of a grifter… I don't know, I haven't really found a good translation yet. And even if I found a short phrase that captured the literal meaning, it fails to convey the fact that it's an archetype in Argentine culture, and that when you call someone "chanta" it has familiar overtones that are very hard to find in calling someone a lazy conman.

    I believe when you need to write at the very least a short essay to really convey the original meaning, then you've run into a problem with translation. I'm sure GKP speaks other languages and has sensed that one language is better to express some feelings/ideas than the other. Or do your really think nothing is lost in translation in going from toska to "dull ache of the soul stemming from longing or pining"?

  15. Adam said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

    Eh? There's only one Inuit word that's hard to translate?

  16. Nicholas Waller said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    I imagine the "untranslateable words" claim is not so much that the concept is inexplicable (obviously, given the explanatory list), nor that to be translateable every word has to have a one-to-one equivalent, but simply that the foreign word is so succinct and to-the-point that it makes sense to import it as is (like schadenfreude and zeitgeist and detente) rather than come up with a less pithy English replacement term.

    (The original list is more a set of definitions than a set of translations. I suppose one could also claim that most (if not all) single English words are "untranslateable" into other single English words, if you take the position that complete synonyms are rare (if not impossible) on account of each word having its own unique sense and heft and colour and history and set of associations – after all, a dictionary is a series of long-winded definitions of words rather than a listing of exact single word replacements.)

  17. fs said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    :/ Lazy Japanese Romanization strikes again… 教育ママ should probably be rendered as "Kyouiku Mama" or "Kyōiku Mama". And it's certainly not a single word.

  18. Charles Gaulke said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    The 'word' "l'appel du vide" is a particularly egregious example, of course, since it LITERALLY translates almost directly to "call of the void", a phrase which is the exact same number of words (and which actually strikes me as more idiomatic in English than French, but I may be wrong there). Including "words" that are really just compressed phrases, as is often done with German, is one thing, but there are freaking spaces in that for crying out loud!

    I think one of the reasons these lists so often give at-best-inaccurate glosses is that they base them one how the word is used rather than how it is defined. That is, they're basically slang or shorthand, often specific to a region or generation, and if you looked you could probably find a specific Anglophone region/subculture within which some English word was used in exactly the same sense. Particularly with languages which are less widely spoken, or spoken within a more homogeneous population, it's ridiculous to compare those very specific senses to the dictionary definitions of words in a language spoken all over the world by people of vastly different cultural backgrounds.

    All that said, if the gloss of litost is a liberal as the one for jayus, please don't tell me. I like it.

  19. Jonathan said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

    About the Czech "prozvonit", modern Hebrew now has a word for it too, I believe: "letsaltek", which is a nice blend of "letsaltsel" and "lenatek", which mean "to call" and "to hang up" respectively.

  20. Tim Leonard said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

    Adam said: "There's only one Inuit word that's hard to translate?"

    Yeah; the other ones all mean "snow".

  21. mollymooly said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

    For starters, "untranslatable" means "un-translate-into-English-able". It seems implausible that a concept should be ineffable in all languages but one.

    A subset of the usual suspects on lists of this type are candidates nominated by native speakers of the source language. They want words that symbolise totems which nobody can truly understand unless born and raised in the relevant culture. Any putative translation can thus be dismissed as failing to capture the rich, complex layers of meaning the word evokes for the natives.

  22. richard howland-bolton said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

    @ myl: 'jayus actually means "not funny, stupid (of jokes)"'
    Damn now I'll NEVER come up with a one-word description of my successes as a teller of jokes.

  23. BlakeMB said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

    Boudica said -> "Such as "prozvonit". What does it say about Czech culture that they have a word for such an action?"

    But in Australia, we've been using the word "prank" for that for years, I wouldn't have thought of it as untranslatable. Some places also use the word "sting" and for that matter the word ワン切り (literally, "one hang up") means the same in Japanese.

    I guess it might not have a one-word equivalent in American English, but the little tackers in Oceania have got it covered. Unless that word is only common to Australian, Czech and Japanese… what could the link be? Hmmm….

  24. R M Maier said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

    Translators are usually very unsatisfactory company for others who are not language people – even to very simple questions of the type, "How d'you say X in [some language]?", they tend to reply with another question: "What's the context?"
    In other words, I think the problem about claims of 'untranslatability' is not their truth status, but rather what people think translation is.
    If one thinks of translation as an act of transcoding between two languages, there is always the possibility of running into items that run deeper into the background than what any one transcoding algorithm can capture – hence, claims of untranslatability (in particular if there is an expectation of verbs turning up as verbs again, and so on).

    But, while I try to imagine what would happen if translation were thought of as a kind of paraphrasing, rather than transcoding – "iktsuarpok" looks like a notion that I'd like to have more easily accessible, I've got to find some way of borrowing that into German…

  25. ambrosen said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:58 pm

    Jonathan, I've also seen an English lexeme for 'prozvonit': 'to missed call'.

    As in "Just missed call me before you get in and I'll pick you up from the station.". I find this usage beautiful.

  26. Atario said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

    Perhaps the intent of "untranslatability" here is not an absolute, but a magnitude on a scale — something like the ratio of necessary target language words to source language words.

  27. Kaviani said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

    Strange that no vulgarity made it to this list. AmE is generally direct and explicit in vulgarity, but most other languages have seemingly odd, often idiomatic expressions that have no particular English equivalent. I get a good laugh while watching the English subtitles of cussing in foreign movies I can understand.

  28. Δμ3κ said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

    Yep, the impression that translation equals 1:1 mapping annoys me as well.

    >prozvonit Czech call a cellphone once so the other person will call back on their dime
    hah, one word translation in greek: "αναπάντητη"

  29. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

    For more on the genre of untranslatables, see my 2005 post, "Tingo and other lingo." (Several of the examples here appear to be derived from Adam Jacot De Boinod's The Meaning of Tingo, which in turn cribbed from previous compendia.)

  30. Robert S. Porter said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

    The problem I always have with the German examples is that they are compound nouns, which are extremely common. If English were to do so more regularily we could say "Misfortunepleasure" etc.

  31. lynneguist said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

    What I want to know: when these lists are written in other languages, which English words make the grade?

  32. John Lawler said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

    … like Mark Twain's Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen. "Untranslatable" by the standard Geoff mentions.
    Oh, and I suppose I had better mention in this context the work of Anna Wierzbicka and Cliff Goddard, who seem to have spent most of the preceding decades discovering, among other things, that no two languages have exactly the same set of monomorphemic emotive descriptors.

  33. Kutsuwamushi said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

    I actually think some words do have a cultural content that makes it hard to translate the feeling they evoke, although it might be relatively simple to describe the literal meaning. Maybe that's what they mean by untranslatable?

    I would say "untranslatable" depends on the context. I have on idea what the author of the article meant.

    It's relatively easy to translate a word if you're having a discussion about what it means. I could write a paragraph on wabi-sabi, and when I was done you would understand the literal meaning and at least some of the connotations. It might not evoke the same feeling in you, but I could, hypothetically, at least explain what type of feeling it evokes in native speakers.

    But if I was writing a novel I would have a much harder time of it. I couldn't just explain the word, because that would wreck the prose; I would have to find an elegant equivalent. There might not be one. In that case, it would be untranslatable–in that context. By that definition a great many words are untranslatable, beginning with some that I'm sure people consider really mundane. (Let's start with colors!.)

    It seems to me like these lists of untranslatable words are really just lists of "words in other languages that I think are neat". I think that's fun enough on its own without calling them untranslatable.

  34. John Lawler said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    @lynneguist: Look at the list in Wierzbicka's English: Meaning and Culture (Oxford 2006). She suggests terms (and concepts) like Being Fair, Being Reasonable, Being Right or Wrong as having extremely complex and non-universal meanings that are difficult for non-English speakers to understand.

    [(myl) For some discussion of fair in particular, see here.]

  35. Ellen K. said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

    I would take untranslatable, when applied to a word, not to mean that we can't, in the target language, express the idea the word expresses, and not to mean it can't be translated by a single word, but, rather, to mean something in between. Something that you can't express in the other language with a either a single word or simple phrase.

    Of course, the context of what one is translating, and whether it works to use a long explanation where the original had a single word, affects how translateable a word is in a practical sense.

  36. STW said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

    One of the beauties of English is the ease with which foreign words with unique meanings are simply appropriated. So if we don't have a single word for "anger" or "taboo" we're okay with that and use the words anger or taboo instead.
    Since it takes about 25% more words to translate something from English into Spanish there must be a lot of English words without a Spanish equivalent.

  37. bulbul said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

    What does it say about Czech culture that they have a word for such an action?"
    Czech (and Slovak) culture as a whole? Nothing. It says a lot about those who use that word (like my teenage sister), those who don't (like me), their respective economic situations and the marketing and pricing policies of cell service providers. It might thus provide some insight into Czech (and Slovak) society, but I don't think you'll gain any knowledge of the culture.
    BTW, "prozvonit/prezvoniť" can also mean "to give a signal by calling someone's cell phone".

  38. bulbul said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

    R.M. Maier,

    even to very simple questions of the type, "How d'you say X in [some language]?", they tend to reply with another question:
    A very simple question? Ha! "What is the meaning of life" is a simple question, because at the very least, there one can always fall back to "42".

  39. Jim said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

    Maybe we need another term than "untranslateable" (and that term would then kind of define itself, no?), but what he calling out is that these languages have a word or short idiomatic phrase for a big complex, while English does not. Is it "translated" when the result is 8 or 10 words that mostly worm their way around the concept, that explain the idea but don't encapsulate it?

    I propose that "untranslateable" actually is the English word or short idiom for that concept. It's shorthand for "You wouldn't understand, it's a woman/gay/black/Inuit thing. But here, I'll try to explain."

  40. Ian Preston said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

    This source gives several related and much less specific meanings for tartle, generally having to do with hesitation but not tied to hesitation in name-recall of the sort mentioned.

  41. VMartin said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

    I am a bit surprised to find Czech word "litost" on the list. In Slovak it is very similar "lutost". I was convinced that the word means "pity" or "sorrow" or "feel sorry for" in English. I have also find such translation in my 1.200 page Slovak-English dictionary published by Slovak Academic press. lutost = compassion, pity, sorrow. What's the problem?

    Another Czech word on the list is "prozvonit" with this peculiar translation: "call a cellphone once so the other person will call back on their dime."
    Actually I think the translation is misleading. In Slovak it is "prezvonit" and it doesn't mean that other person has to call you back. One of our telecom operator has this terminus technikus even on its site:

    "Za každý pokus o spojenie hovoru v sieti Telia si operátor účtuje poplatok, ktorý sa rovná 30 sekundovej tarifikácii. Tento poplatok bude účtovaný bez ohľadu na to, či bol hovor vykonaný alebo nie (prezvonenie). "

    Prezvonenie just means that somebody call you and you don't pick up the phone. For instatnce I may use this word to say "if everything ok I'll give you a ring at 4 pm." "Prezvonim ta o 4". The communication itself doesn't happen! So if somebody call you at 4 pm, it would be me and everything is ok. It is not necessary you call me back. But our company want to charge the "prezvonenie" from Slovakia to Denmark.

    I wonder if the other words on the list are of the same kind.

  42. Rasselas said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 3:43 pm

    Geoff, the fierceness of your

    hatred for things-people-have-no-words-for genre of writing about language

    has led you to omit a determiner from the NP headed by the singular count noun genre.
    Which leads me to think this NP cries out for a single-word Language Log coinage along the lines of snowclone and eggcorn.

  43. michael farris said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 3:57 pm

    I generally agree with cricitism of the 'untranslatable' meme, but at certain times, as a sometimes trasnlator I have some sympathy for it. It's true that anything that can be said in one language can be said in any other, but in the real world, there's also an idea that a good translation should be of comparable length.

    If a Czech sentence is can be translated (apart from the relevant word):

    He was overcome by a feeling of litost.


    Hw was overcome by a feeling of agony and torment sparked by the sudden apperception of his misery.

    is not good (if that meaning of litost is accurate, by no means a given)

    Also Polish has a similar word to prozonit – głuchać (or puścic głuchacza)
    derived from the word for 'deaf' (as in 'głuchy telefon' (which refers to a dead line or a call that's picked up too late). Partly it refers to someone calling so the other person won't answer but will then call back (due to vagaries of billing) but it's also used for transmitting all kinds of messages and you can overhear people pre-arranging various kinds of signals all over the place.

  44. Hawke said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

    Maybe I’m confused, but to me there’s more to translation than simply defining the word in another language.

    Try using any of those “translations” into anything more than the simplest of sentences, and it turns out badly.

    I’m not so sure about “l'appel du vide” — It seems like it’s just the normal problem of idioms being difficult to translate even if the words themselves translate easily.

  45. Maria said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

    For words that are hard to translate from English, my political scientist friends have a hard time finding a Spanish word for "enforce".

  46. Luke said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

    I think a much more interesting way to explore culturally unique concepts is to look at phrases which may easily be translated, but not-so-easily explained. For example, try explaining "Monday Morning Quarterback" or "Brown Bag Lunch" to someone not already familiar with American culture.

  47. Joyce Melton said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

    The prozvonit bit is translated by a one syllable English word: ping. "I'll ping you," has wider application than just cellphones, though, but is easily understood. In the old days of expensive long distance, the phrase was "short ring". "I'll short ring you at eleven but you don't have to call me back." Short rings were also used in the days of party lines as signals to set up meetings that one did not want to discuss on the phone.

  48. R M Maier said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

    Oops, appears I forgot my irony inverted commas around "simple"? (Oh actually, turns out they should have been around my entire first sentence.)
    The notion that questions for "the" context-free meaning of "a word" should be 'easy' belongs, of course, to the field of apparently ineradicable translation myths (which has seen far less educational work than language myths).

  49. GeorgeW said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

    It seems to me that some of these, like the Arabic example above, are more idiomatic expressions than 'a word for.'

    First, although the Arabic (actually Lebanese Arabic expression) 'ya'aburnee' is by some definitions a word, but it is also a complete a sentence in that it contains morphemes for the subject (3rd person, masc., sing.) + the verb + the direct object (1st person sing.). In addition, the meaning is idiomatic, not literal.

    So, we could submit the untranslatable English 'word' — he spilled the beans — and it have to be glossed and explained in most other languages.

  50. Jason said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

    Of course some concepts must exist for which a language does not have a single word; it is unreasonable to expect of language evolution that it would provide a single word for every possible theoretical concept that could be described linguistically, but it is reasonable to expect that SOME language might seize upon a concept and name it if it's relevant to the culture.

    My favorite concept that lacks a single-word descriptor in English: "a concept that lacks a single-word descriptor."

  51. Jonathan said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

    I still like George Bush's (possibly apocryphal) line: "The French have no word for 'entrepreneur.' "

  52. groki said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

    I wonder if a speaker of both Russian and Portuguese would accept toska and saudade as translations of each other.

  53. groki said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

    also, that set of 20 words could be worked into a short story of the romance between two linguists: beginning with mamihlapinatapei; growing from hyggelig and prozvonit to cafuné and ya'aburnee; roller-coastering through litost and ilunga and Torschlusspanik; and finally ending with one facing l'appel du vide and the other contemplating wabi-sabi.

    the result could be anywhere from duende to jayus.

  54. mgh said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 5:15 pm

    This has nothing to do with words vs word phrases. "Whistle," "squeak," "shriek," and "squeal" are all single words that mean "to emit a high-pitched noise" but I would not like to see a translation saying "the child whistled with laughter when his mother squeaked at the shrieking mouse".

  55. michael farris said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 5:15 pm

    "The prozvonit bit is translated by a one syllable English word: ping. "I'll ping you,""

    But does anyone say that? I've never heard that (or 'short ring' for that matter).

  56. Kimi said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

    Maria: aplicar, as in "aplicar la nueva ley…" or "exigir el cumplimiento" seem to translate enforce just fine.

    In Mexican Spanish, prozvonit is "echar una perdida," almost the word for word equivalent of "to missed call" someone.

    STW: don't be ridiculous, the reason it takes more words to render an English text into Spanish is because English uses compact noun phrases where Spanish requires prepositional phrases in many contexts, giving you a higher word count in Spanish than in English.

    A word I've never been able to find a Spanish equivalent for is compromise; we have the false-cognate "compromiso," but that's a commitment in English.

  57. Getty said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 5:26 pm

    I think a lot of these could be easily translated as short phrases in the correct context, as long as you make the undoubtedly correct assumption that the translations given here are overly ornate and florid and that the real meanings include but are not necessarily equivalent to these definitions. I can't think of any real way that you wouldn't capture the subtleties of saudade by a succinct and heartfelt, "I so miss her," or tingo by a subtle wink and, "I borrowed his XBox for a while."

    I can sympathize more with the idea that terms that are entrenched in culture—the usual examples given for these are samizdat and glasnost and the like—are untranslatable, but if we accept those, I'd posit that it's a short step to also accepting the impenetrable web of inside jokes and secret jargon used by subcultures, professions, or even high school children as equally untranslatable. If my coworkers say they "grok" a concept, is that an untranslatable utterance? If my friends use opaque slang to refer to places or events, does that make them untranslatable? After all, your particular idiolect most likely lacks simple phases that are semantically equivalent. For that matter, if I refer to someone—say, Frank—without explaining who he is first, and you do not know who he is, does that make the word "Frank" untranslatable?

  58. John Baker said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

    I seem to recall (possibly from Isaac Asimov's Treasury of Humor) that it is difficult to find a translation for the adjective "disappointed" in Yiddish. Is this true for other languages?

    Michael farris – I just heard someone use "ping" this way a day or two ago, so I assume it's starting to catch on. I didn't ask if he was familiar with the computer use of "ping."

  59. Bobbie said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

    Re: Ping and Prezvonit, etc…. In my family, anyone who went on a long trip was supposed to make a person-to-person call asking for my uncle Lawrence when they arrived at their destination, to indicate that they had arrived safely. The person at the other end always refused the call (hence did not have to pay for it), but knew what the call meant. (This was 40 years ago when the operator had to place the call….) I don't remember any word or phrase for this. It was considered a way of "saving money," not as cheating the phone company out of a large fee.

  60. E. said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

    @Getty: Members of my family express something similar to "tingo" with the phrase "long-term loan". The implication is that the term may be indefinitely long, to the point where the loaned item can be considered a gift– but in our case the giver generally approves, which I'm not sure is the case with "tingo".

  61. Dominik Lukes said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 7:14 pm

    The problem with this debate is that it confuses two aspects of 'translatable'. In one sense it suggests a (significant or complete) lack of availability of apprehension to outsiders. And in that sense, the claim is false. Although reports of these equivalencies often come distorted due to bad use of informants, as illustrated by the Czech examples both of which are erroneous in some respect:

    1. 'agony and torment' are far too strong for 'lítost' which also doesn't just apply to the self – in fact, I looked up lítost in the Czech national corpus and all of the first 10 examples were easily translatable as 'remorse', 'pity', or 'regret';

    2. 'prozvonit' generally does not imply callback to save money but rather a prearranged response to the signal provided by the unanswered ring, like coming to open the door – out of the 10 relevant examples in the Czech oral corpus only 2 did have the meaning of potential call back to save the money (incidentally, in Albania where the practice to ring expecting a call back so the other party pays is common, no such word exists).

    However, as an occasional translator from Czech who has had to contend with the translation of many words/phrases similar to those listed, I'd say that they are pretty close to untranslatable if we in any way wish to preserve the coherence, cohesion and connotation of the source text. In other words, language as actually used. Obviously a translation gets created but it is often at best an approximation. The significance of this for our understanding of the nature of language is, I believe, still underestimated and not being helped by the debates over different forms of relativity.

  62. Cosi said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 7:15 pm

    i wondered whether duende (maghia in greek, methinks) would be there and it is….that is one where i am still looking for an english equivalent, though this description i'd just translate as appeal…duende is much more than that!
    but it is true, there is nothing truly untranslatable
    tartle – stall (the context should make it clear)
    prozvonit – lockruf (there must be an english word for that with the whole hunting tradition…) and most people would say give me a missed call…
    schadenfreude has been absorbed into the english language along with blitzkrieg & hinterland
    torschlusspanik (after all 3 words, really!) – feeling the clock ticking (a phrasal verb…big difference!)
    l'appel de vide (4 words!!!) – vertigo

  63. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 7:20 pm

    I thought toska meant l'appel du vide, especially when you're standing next to a parapet.

    I'd like to point out that Jason Wire specifically said that his translation of hyggelig was inadequate, and that he gave only "the closest definition" of litost, not an adequate definition. So for those two words, his glosses don't contradict his claim that the words are untranslatable.

    Like Michael Farris, I've never heard "ping" or "short-ring" or "missed-call". My parents used to ask me to "signal" them by ringing the phone once. (When, for example, I was traveling back to college and they wanted to know I had arrived all right, but it would be late or there seemed no reason to spend money on a phone call.)

    @E. I use "on permanent loan", the phrase museums use, but in my case the gift usually wasn't quite voluntary on my part.

    @VMartin: Should I conclude that Czech has no word for "technical term"? (Or didn't, till it borrowed a phrase from Latin?) :-)

  64. Mary Kaye said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 7:21 pm

    "Duende" is a spirit, a spook–at least it gets used that way in English-language stories a lot. (My favorite is Geoffrey Household's _The Adversary_ (US)/_Dance of the Dwarves_ (UK).)
    The recent play "Gibralter" asks whether each of the main characters may be a, or the, duende of the other. I think the art sense is at best one of the things the word means.

    A word with a wide range of meanings can lead to translation difficulties if the author was using more than one of them at a time, either as a pun or as shades of meaning.

  65. Jonathan D said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 7:44 pm

    If we allow "untranslatable" to refer to being difficult to translate, rather than the more obvious absolute meaning, and acknowledge that real translation is not simply providing a gloss for a word, then it's pretty obvious that there's something in all this that isn't just about the number of words used to "translate". This isn't the first time I've wondered whether "un-able" is always as absolute as it might seem.

  66. Alex said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 8:39 pm

    'To prank', meaning to hang up before someone answers the phone, is well established in British English, too. E.g. 'Prank me when you're almost here.'.

  67. Moacir said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 9:39 pm

    I can add to the "prozvonit" list: in Lithuanian, it's "pamajakinti," from the word "majakas," which is what an intentional missed call is called. I figure it's from the Russian "маяк," which means "signal" (among other things). The Lithuanian State Language Commission recommends using words we would translate as "signal" or "sign" instead of "majakas": The continued popularity of "majakas" probably indicates the usefulness of a word with as specific a meaning.

    "Ping" I hear in tech support circles, and it means something like "ask" and "remind" at the same time, but for usually quick, trivial things. "ping me when you get back to your office about lunch." 

  68. Jen said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 10:18 pm

    "Drop call" is a good English translation for "prozvonit."

  69. Weltanschauung said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

    I remember how amazed I was when I learned that Polish has no word for "gullible".

  70. Bloix said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 10:45 pm

    "Temps" in "A la recherche du temps perdu" is untranslatable. "In Search of Lost Time" means something like, I"m trying to make up the 45 minutes I lost because I missed my train." If you don't know the original, the translation is incomprehensible. To my mind, Remembrance of Things Past, although it's a retitling and not a translation, is superior.

  71. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 12:32 am

    Isn't the problem one of synonymity? In other words, there is not only no word in English for duende, but there is no other word in Spanish for it either! As chance would have it, I am writing a chapter of my book right now on the duende. It really is virtually untranslatable, in the sense that I will need about 12,000 words to explain the concept.

  72. qsi said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 1:03 am

    Interesting that Dutch "gezellig" didn't make the list, as this is often cited by Dutch speakers as untranslatable. The Danish "hyggelig" looks suspiciously similar to "gezellig" though…

  73. Craig said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 1:34 am

    At my Dutch meetup tonight, we had a brief discussion about gezellig which corresponds to the Danish hyggelig above or the German gemütlich.

    I wonder, does every other Germanic language claim a word for friendly coziness that English speakers putatively can't translate?

  74. VMartin said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 1:54 am

    @Jerry Friedman

    @VMartin: Should I conclude that Czech has no word for "technical term"? (Or didn't, till it borrowed a phrase from Latin?) :-)

    Good question. I just wonder if English "technical term" is a brilliant translation of Latin "terminus technicus"?
    Maybe Greek "techné" and Latin "terminus" should be added on the list above.

  75. weej said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 2:16 am

    I've heard people use "ghost" in the same sense as "prozvonit".

  76. Luis said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 3:06 am

    @Mary Kaye

    I've always thought that "duende" (in the relevant sense) can be relatively well translated as "groovy" (also in the relevant sense), as in "Dude, this Jimmy Hendrix album is totally groovy".

    Additionally, I also like the translation for "bungee jumping" into Spanish: "puenting", from "puente" (bridge).

  77. Samantha said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 3:27 am

    "Kyoikumama" sounds like it could be similar to "stage mom" to me.

    In my family we also had a way of saving money on a phone call. At the end of a long school day, I would call my parents collect, and when the operator said "Please state your name" I would say, "Momcanyoupickmeupnow." Charges denied.

  78. giri Rao said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 3:29 am

    The standard Indian equivalent for "prozvonit" is "missed call": misTkaal ivvu (= "give [me a] missed call" in Telugu). The Wikipedia article says "At least one company in Bangalore is using this "tool" to generate business." (And also that it's called "miskol" in the Phillipines.)

  79. ShadowFox said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 4:12 am

    Two minor comments. First, a global one. Geoff comments on the nature of these words as "lack of an exact one-word equivalent". I don't think it too much of a quibble to say that what he likely meant to say is that these words "lack of an exact one-word equivalent in English".

    Second, since I know Russian pretty well, I am prepared to give an exact, one-word translation for the Russian word on the list–"toska". The translation is "melancholy"–a quality often attributed to Russians. Of course, melancholy does not imply specifically longing. The authors of the list might be surprised to find out that "toska" makes no such implication either.

    Finally, as I said, I know Russian. But I don't really know Czech. Yet, as soon as I saw "prozvonit" and "Czech", I could immediately deduce what the word meant. In fact, some Russian dialectal groups use exactly the same word (spelled in a Cyrillic alphabet, of course) to mean exactly the same thing. This word describes the concept that might be more familiar to Brits than to Americans. Since receiving calls is free on European cell-phone plans, but dialing out is not, there may be situations when one would prefer to receive a call rather than to make one (e.g., being out of minutes). So caller 1 calls caller 2 and lets the phone ring long enough to record the incoming caller ID. Then caller 2 either knowingly (prearranged) or spontaneously dials that number to find out what was the purpose of the call. In Russian, at least, the exact meaning of the word is "to call through", compared to "pozvonit'", which means "to make a call" or just "to call". And the former was specifically invented to describe something differentiated from the latter. Do we have any neologisms of this type? Of course, we do! Consider, for example, the LL familiar use of "eggcorn".

    To the list above, one can also add the no-longer-ubiquitously-Japanese umame (or umami–or any of a half-dozen other spelling variants). One suggested translation for the word was "getting suckers to buy your products because they contain some supposedly indescribable flavor". Now, there's a mouthful!

  80. ShadowFox said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 4:23 am

    One more thing–of the three words (Danish, German and Dutch) that represent "warm, friendly experience with friends", Google translates two as "cozy" and one as "nice". Clearly all are adjectives. And I can't think of an adjective in English that glosses the same way. But the listing above seems to be for a noun. If that's the case, what's wrong with "comradery" or "camaraderie"? The exact "translation" in AHD4 (on Yahoo!) is "Goodwill and lighthearted rapport between or among friends; comradeship."

  81. ShadowFox said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 4:30 am

    Sorry, one more:


  82. oliverio said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 4:32 am

    I remember having seen a Greek word for 'Schadenfreude' in a novel by a Greek author I read in French. I've just retrieved his name with a request for Greek polars on a search engine : Petros Markaris. I forgot to take a note at the time.

  83. David said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 4:45 am

    @Craig: to my knowledge, Swedish doesn't have an exact equivalent of "hyggelig", at least not one which we would claim to be untranslatable. The Swedish cognate is "hygglig", which perhaps could be rendered as 'decent'. (Han är en hygglig karl = He's a decent fellow. Det var hyggligt! = That was nice of you!)

    Swedes tend to talk of the word "lagom" as being untranslatable. It means "just the right amount". Of course, I just gave you a translation, so it's obviously not untranslatable. But the word has connotations that the English equivalent has: Swedes speak of Sweden as "landet lagom" (the 'lagom country'), since we do things in moderation.

    A word which I do find difficult to translate, though, is the word "susa". It means 'to make the sound which the wind makes in the forest', and it yields the noun 'sus'. The English dictionary of the Swedish National Encyclopedia proposes "to sigh", which works, but it certainly doesn't have the immediacy of "susa", in the sense that it does not immediately present itself as something that we think of as happening in the forest, while "det susar i skogen" ('the wind is sighing in the trees') would be a fairly common statement in Swedish, at least in poetic language.

  84. outeast said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 5:24 am

    I've been tasked explicitly with supplying a one-or-at-most-two-part word translation for prozvonit before for a cell entry in a table forming part of a telecommunications report, and in that context it's pretty much untranslatable! (I can't remember our eventual solution, though I remember no one was happy with it; I and my circle use the two-part verb 'missed call', but as the many suggestions above make clear it's far from universal.)

  85. outeast said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 5:32 am

    'sus' = 'susurration', ' susurrus'? Certainly has a nice onomatpoeic ring, anyhoo. Very reminiscent of leaves rustling in the wind. And presumably a shared etymology, tho I can't look it up just now to check.

  86. Jo said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 5:42 am

    As a full-time translator, I'd say I run into about ten Italian words on any given workday (not always the same ones, of course) that are just as "untranslatable" as the examples in this list. And I sure don't leave them in Italian, or end up with sentences three times as long as the original. Some never cease to be annoying; with others, a solution that will work 90% of the time in a given context may pop into my head after YEARS of struggling with the same term and seem so obvious I can't believe it never came to me before. So sometimes "untranslatable" just means "something you haven't thought about hard enough".

    Kundera definitely played a big role in spreading the idea that "litost" is an untranslatable word.

  87. Matt Heath said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 5:49 am


    That's not really right. In most cases it would be safe to replace it with just "longing" and "ter saudades" with "to miss". It's really as general as that.
    The "for someone or something that you love but have lost" part is sort of there in some contexts. It's the saudade sung about in fado: fisherman or sailors or migrant workers desperately wanting to be home or there wives desperately wanting them back. "Nostalgia" doesn't really work here either; it's much less gently comforting and more breast beating than "nostalgia".

    People often say "saudade" can't be translated because no translation will pick up those connotations. I think that's a pretty low bar for "untranslatable". It must be true of just about any word that there will be some connotations lost in translation.

  88. Julie said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 6:01 am

    @David: I have seen the word "sough" used to describe the sound of wind in the trees, and I'm pretty sure I've never seen it in any other context. Can't say I've ever heard anyone say it, though, so I'm not quite sure how I'd pronounce it.

  89. PP said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 6:44 am

    Here is something that might be worth looking into:

  90. Tim Silverman said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 6:50 am

    @Julie: I'm pretty sure I've seen "sough" used for the sound of wind in grass, which sounds rather different.

  91. Marion Crane said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 7:28 am

    Shadowfox: I don't know about hyggelig, but in Dutch gezellig is also an adjective. The noun is gezelligheid. Camaraderie works pretty well, though that refers mostly to other people, and gezellig and gezelligheid can also describe situations and locations.

    Of course, though it is implied in the post, and I don't know about the original article, the list has to be based on source language>English. I'd guess that a list like this using all languages in the world would be empty, even if you interpret 'untranslatable' at its broadest.

  92. outeast said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 7:38 am

    @Tim, @ Julie
    My dictionary has 'sough' as 'make a rushing, rustling, or murmering sound, as of the wind in trees etc.' (plus the figurative extensions one would expect). So it fits – except that as a very unusual word it seems hardly equivalent to David's 'susa'.

    Actually, though, there are tons of words we use routinely to capture the many sounds of the wind in the trees, like 'rush', 'rustle', 'sigh', 'whistle', 'howl', 'murmer', 'moan', 'wail', 'sing', 'whisper', 'hush', and plenty more, giving a plethora of choices depending on the desired sound, atmosphere, and so on. After all, the wind doesn't make just one sound in the trees, does it?

  93. Ian Preston said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 7:59 am

    @Julie: Can't say I've ever heard anyone say it …

    You can hear it sung here. (First line: "… soughed the yew …")

  94. VMartin said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 8:01 am

    Kundera definitely played a big role in spreading the idea that "litost" is an untranslatable word.

    It depends what Milan Kundera feels or imagines using the word. It can be said about every word. Obviously the word "mother" has different deeper meaning not only in different languages but also for different people or – even for brothers.
    Sentenes like "My mother was a unique woman" are then untranslatable and uncomprehensible regarding its precise meaning except for the very man who said them.

    The second problem is the "context", the word used on this blog very often. As a layman I would say it is not exactly grammatical "context", but the broader phenomenological term "horizon" which makes a background to every word against which it acquires its real meaning.

  95. Jarmila said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 9:00 am

    "Litost"="agony, torment"? Why? It means something like "being sorry" ("sorriness" – does the word exist in English? is it used in this sense?). "Je mi ho lito"="I'm sorry for him" "Je mi lito" or "Je mi to lito"="I'm sorry [it happened… etc.]"

  96. ShadowFox said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 11:02 am

    @Matt Heath

    I'll easily grant you that my translation is not perfect, but that's true for almost any translated word. For one, you've just described a number of different connotations that appear to depend on context–the old bugaboo of automatic translation. Even experienced bilingual speakers may have trouble giving global translation–in many cases, it is simply impossible to describe all nuances of a meaning with a single gloss. The point of a translation, it seems is to provide an area of significant overlap, not a bijection, as Geoff so astutely observed. If a single gloss works 40% of the time and there is no other that works more frequently, that's the one as you will find as a dictionary translation. Another test would be reverse the translation. If it works "pretty well", you've found a good match–and "pretty well" is meant to be as inexact as it sounds. So I am well aware that saudade is not a literal equivalent of nostalgia and hyggelig is not perfectly matched by camaraderie, but both are fairly good dictionary descriptions of what is intended without going too deeply into context. And both will work fairly well as one-word translations in a large number of cases, especially where the context will provide the rest.

    PS: Perhaps it's the influence of Russian culture, but I find nothing soft about nostalgia.
    PPS: It's interesting that so many words on the list deal with either a kind of sadness or a sense of belonging (or not belonging) or both. Perhaps there is some psychological explanation why many native speakers of any particular language find extra connotation in such words that they find "untranslatable". I just chalk it up to nostalgia. ;-)

  97. putz said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 11:23 am

    lagom = Goldilocks, as in Goldilocks planet
    enforce = enforzar – when in doubt, use an anglicism. It feels perfectly at home in a Romance language and it's immediately understandable, don't you think? Attested in Mexico for over a century.

  98. Lantzy said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

    "Sough", the thing leaves do in the wind, is usually pronounced "suff", /sʌf/, but apparently an alternative, more etymological pronunciation is "sow", /saʊ/. I don't know why the word is so obscure. Perhaps because most of us spend so little time among trees. But it has the advantage of being onomatopoetic, so it will probably never die out completely.

    Also, the word "sigh" is commonly applied to that same noise, frequently poetically: "Lo ! a lad where trees are sighing / In the violets' vapor lying".

  99. E said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

    @Maria: One example I've tried to translate in the past is the Argentine "chanta". It's a slang word used for someone who's a little lazy, a little bit of a grifter… I don't know, I haven't really found a good translation yet.

    Would "moocher" be a fair approximation?

  100. E said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

    Also, might a chanta engage in tingo?

  101. Mammal said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

    @Shadowfox –

    From this native Russian speaker's point of view –
    while "toska" and "melancholy" overlap, their cores are apart.
    "Toska" is more painful. It includes grief and anxiety.


  102. Darryl Shpak said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

    Has the notion of "untranslateability" ever been applied to the alleged N different words for snow that the Inuit have (or similar claims of N words for concept X in language Z)? It seems like a natural fit: If one language has N words and one language has M, where M < N, then the natural followup claim is that the N words have shades of meaning that get lost in translation.

    (I just happened across this snowclone two days ago: "the Inuit have 99 distinct words for different types of sea ice". This claim was put forward by a linguist studying dying languages (K. David Harrison), so I'm willing to assume that for a suitable definition of "word", this is actually true:

  103. Philip said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 2:19 pm

    If a word in L1 were untranslatable into L2, wouldn't that mean that the neurophysiology of speakers of L1 would have to be different from that of speakers of L2? To oversimplify: L1 brains would be different than L2 brains.

    I'm a layperson, but that seems bizzare to me.

  104. Jim said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

    Is there any word in English that represents a concept for which other languages wouldn't have a single word? Like Schadenfreude (to a certain extent, anyway), I hope that we can adopt some of these. Most of these are just incredibly beautiful words….

  105. Jim said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

    Ok, I get the "nes pas" and "juene fille", but "girl" and "not" pale in comparison to "you bury me" and "gate closing panic"…

  106. GeorgeW said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

    Jim: "Is there any word in English that represents a concept for which other languages wouldn't have a single word?"

    How about 'blog?'

  107. Jeff R. said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    Michael Farris: "If a Czech sentence is can be translated (apart from the relevant word):

    He was overcome by a feeling of litost.


    He was overcome by a feeling of agony and torment sparked by the sudden perception of his misery. "

    Even stronger, imagine trying to translate this dialog the rest of the way from Czech:

    "How are you feeling?"


    Untranslatable becomes shorthand for 'untranslatable in any context where brevity must be relatively preserved'. And dialog is probably a big proportion of the set of things that people are going to want to translate.

  108. Ellen K. said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

    Thinking about it more, it seems to me silly to talk about translateability of words, because (in most cases) we don't translate words. We translate phrases and sentences (on up). Like, it doesn't matter that I don't know how to translate "thirsty" into Spanish; I can translate "I'm thirsty" just fine, into a nice two word phrase same as the English. (Tengo sed, literally "I have thirst").

  109. jdash30 said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

    Or, as James Merrill wrote:

    Lost, is it, buried? One more missing piece?
    But nothing's lost. Or else: all is translation.

  110. Aravindhan said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 6:50 pm

    As a synesthete, I can tell you what is genuinely untranslatable: the way in which a piece of music has colour. I've come up with a private vocabulary to describe it in my journals, but try as I may, I've never been able to explain it to non-synesthetes, and I suspect I never will, simply because it's so different from anything they've ever experienced. Other synesthetes get it, of course – although they see different colours, music still has colour in the same way.

    Extending that, I'd hypothesise that as long as a word describes something that is within the realm of things that speakers of another language are capable of feeling or experiencing, it'll be translatable. It may cause difficulties because of the context, but it'll never be unmanageable (e.g., the clever way English language productions of /Hedda Gabler/ deal with Ibsen's use of the distinction between the second person formal ('De') and informal ('du'), which is a key plot point in the original).

  111. Douglas said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 7:43 pm

    No snark here, but I thought duende was normally translated not as the artwork's power but as the artist's power as submitted or transmitted through the artwork. When Lorca discusses it in his writings, he usually (If I remember correctly) refers to the artist as having duende, and thus, the artwork is sublime, because it transmits this power.

  112. Julie said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 11:57 pm

    @Outeast: Yes, I can think of lots of words for the wind in the trees or the grass, but that's the only word I know of that never seems to be used to mean anything else.

  113. J. Goard said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 12:19 am

    Very interesting comments, with some great examples, but you guys are missing what for me is by far the most striking fact about such lists: they confuse difficulty of translation with emotional evocativeness.

    In my view, these aren't even remotely similar phenomena. If you ask me what's really difficult to translate/use/explain between English and Korean, it would be either spatial relationships (many Korean verbs correspond to put on, concerning which please see the fascinating work of Soonja Choi and her collaborators), commonplace objects or their physical parts (many English words correspond to Korean 껍질 kkepcil: 'shell', 'skin', 'bark', 'peel', 'crust'), or temporal relationships (e.g., "one hour later" vs. "one hour from now") . Or, of course, the subject of my own research: the English articles. Emotionally flat concepts, one and all, unlikely to give poets any wet dreams. But difficult obstacles to translation or foreign language acquisition.

    What Koreans most often mention as "untranslatable" are really just concepts that evoke the strongest emotions, and play a central role in the (heavily mythologized) popular history, such as han 'grudge', 'regret', 'frustrated desire' or hyo 'duty to one's parents'. These are indeed essential concepts for anyone living in or dealing with Korea, and I have no objection to mentioning them as such. But, frankly, it's ridiculous to think that they represent the greatest differences in how the two languages structure conceptualization of the world.

  114. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 12:43 am

    @Aravindhan: I tell people I see the colors (and shapes) of music in my mind's eye, just where I imagine things, and I can go on from there.

    I'd hypothesise that as long as a word describes something that is within the realm of things that speakers of another language are capable of feeling or experiencing, it'll be translatable.

    What if the thing isn't an experience that depends on a presumably innate brain structure, such as synesthesia, but something that depends on having grown up in a different culture? I had this experience with a Navaho woman, who spoke English better than Navaho, but there were times when what she was trying to say to me made no sense to me, and she said there was no way to say it in English. What would I have to do to understand things like that? Spend years understanding her culture? Would I then be able to express those ideas in English any better than she could?

    I haven't heard many stories like that, so maybe my incomprehension was just something to do with her or me or an incompatibility between us. But that's what literal untranslatability would be like.

  115. VMartin said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 2:38 am

    …deal with Ibsen's use of the distinction between the second person formal ('De') and informal ('du'), which is a key plot point in the original).

    That's the point! I would like to know how can be translated this sentence into English:

    "Sollen wir uns nicht duzen?"

    Especially such very important nuances when beloved woman says for the first time to his lover "Du" instead "Sie"!

    The problem is also in dubbing endless USA TV series. Such series are broadcasted often daily and there are many people involved dubbing them. You can get series 87, 92, 104 and 125 and you actually sometimes don't know who is who. In the case of USA series you obtain also table with stars and their relationships who is saying whom "Du – Ty" or "Sie – Vy" (German – Slovak). Such a table might be sometimes quite impressive – especially in series from hospitals.

    Another problem is female/male different grammar structures in Slavonic. The sentences like "I came home very tired" might be translated either as "Prišla som domov celá unavená " for woman or "Prišiel som domov celý unavený" for man.

    Once I read from Czech linguist Pavel Eisner that he was unable to translate a medieval poem (Spanish?) into Czech because it started "I would love you" and it was not clear from the context who wrote it – woman or man?


  116. GeorgeW said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 7:22 am

    @Jerry Friedman: "What if the thing [is] . . . something that depends on having grown up in a different culture?"

    It may be more difficult to explain some 'words' to a person from a different culture, but there are also concepts within a culture and language community that are difficult to define. These are definitional issues, not translation.

    I often experience this with my fluent, English L2 wife, particularly with AmE. idioms. But, I would have equal difficulty explaining the same expression to an L1 speaker who had never previously heard it.

  117. bryan said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    "Or you could go with hard, which cannot be translated into German because in a given context you need one of about 40 German adjectives, of which the only one I remember offhand is alkoholisch."

    Very funny: the only word you could remember is "alcoholic" in German?!

    I'm fairly sure that Schadenfreude could be translated into the Chinese 幸災樂禍… the only difference is its tendency to be used as a verb instead of a noun, ie, 'feeling/expressing glee at another's misfortune'.

    And I thought German and English were related, and they don't even have an English equivalent of Schadenfreude?! It's mysterious how it could be found in Chinese, as 幸災樂禍 even if the grammar tend to be somewhat different.
    The moment I learned of the definition of that word Schadenfreude, I'm like, that's almost the same meaning as "幸災樂禍"! Tried desperately to find the English equivalent of either the Chinese or German term, but never found it.

  118. bryan said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 10:48 am

    教育まま = kyoikumama = Japanese mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement

    教育 = Chinese for "education", まま is the Japanese phonetic equivalent of "mama" mimicking either the English or Chinese word for "mother" by young children, AKA 'mama'. It's a made up term and with this the Japanese made up a term that I think every culture should have: Every parent expects their children to achieve in academic settings. Chinese people expect their children to excel in schools, etc… via Confucian teachings, yet there's no term such as "教育まま/kyoikumama" in Chinese. I do find that strange.

  119. bryan said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    I read a book called "They have a word for that". In it, there's the word "tingo", but Jason forgot one thing:
    tingo Pascuense obtain desired objects from a friend by borrowing them one by one
    But when said "friend" finds out, then you might not be friends any longer! Then he might ask his friend to go to your house and tingo. Ha ha. After the tingo, you tango!]

  120. bryan said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 10:59 am

    Talking about "They have a word for that": Here's another one: attacabottoni [from Italian = "button attacher"/"buttonmaker", verbatim = someone who attaches the buttons to clothing]
    "Someone who's so bored they keep telling interesting stories which might not be true just to make the listener happy"?

  121. M said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

    ambrosen said, I've also seen an English lexeme for 'prozvonit': 'to missed call'.

    For me (and other South Africans), this has become "miscall" — the -ed suffix has disappeared, but the mis- prefix has also exerted an influence I think: it's not a proper call, it's a call done badly.

  122. Kevin Iga said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    How about words like these:
    There is no word for "the" (English) in Russian.
    There is no word for "aux" (French) in English. (as in the grammatical particle)
    There is no word for "et" (Hebrew) in English. (as in the accusative case marker)
    There is no word for "ga" (Japanese) in English. (as in the nominative case marker)
    For that matter, consider "ne… pas" in French. It is translated "not" in English. But what is the English word for "ne"? Or "pas"?

    Which is not to say you can't translate a sentence that has these features; just that there is no word, or even constituent, in the translation that corresponds to the original word.

    [I'm pretty sure that by this stage no one has any recollection of what I actually wrote. But just in case anyone still cares, let me remind you that I cited ne…pas in making the point that it would be stupid to think that a translation is only a perfect one if it has exactly the same number of words as the original and they are mapped one-to-one by a synonymy relation. Nearly everyone in these comments is still grubbing around for words that don't have English equivalents. But why? My thesis is that it is absurd to demand word-for-word equivalence in translations, and continuing to demand it says nothing about untranslatability at all. I expect, though, that no one will listen; probably the next comment will be someone dredging up an allegedly untranslatable word from Hungarian or something… —GKP]

  123. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    There isn't even agreement on what this means in Hungarian, let alone in any other language:

  124. Army1987 said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

    According to my own pet analysis of French negations, pas is the word for "not" (and rien the word for "nothing", and aucun the word for "none", etc.), while ne is just an inflexional clitic of the following finite verb and no more of a word for "not" than the -es in two churches is a word for "several". It's true that a weak pronoun can go between the ne and the verb, but then the Portuguese future tense can be split in the same way.

  125. Army1987 said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

    It must be true of just about any word that there will be some connotations lost in translation.
    There are lots of words (e.g. technical terms) which don't really have connotations. Translating English samarium into Italian samario doesn't lose anything at all, I think.

  126. Xmun said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

    @Kevin Iga: For that matter, consider "ne… pas" in French. It is translated "not" in English. But what is the English word for "ne"? Or "pas"?

    I'm not sure if your question is meant seriously or if you're just joking, but here's my answer anyway. The negative word is "ne", corresponding to the English "not". The "pas" was originally the word for "step" (as it still is in positive contexts), and "ne . . . pas" was equivalent to "not a step". We have the same constructions in English, where "not" is followed by a complement. E.g. "I won't go a step more", "I haven't slept a wink/drunk a drop/said a word", etc. French, too, has "ne . . . pas/point/mie/goutte/mot/noix", etc. (copied from my elderly edition of Grevisse, Le bon usage).

    That said, "pas" has over the years acquired its own negative force. E.g., "Croyez-vous cette histoire?" ["Do you believe this story?"] answered by "Pas du tout!" ["Not at all!"].

  127. Nathan Myers said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 10:46 pm

    Maria: Is "ne'er-do-well", for "chanta", too archaic? It seems we have dozens of words of its ilk that might serve, but that you might have trouble choosing among because the source context wasn't specific enough to allow you to select one unambiguously. Isn't this a common problem when translating "cousin" into other languages?

  128. ShadowFox said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 11:14 pm

    @Mammal–spoken like a true Russian. Note the comment I made earlier about how native speakers feel about their own words [being untranslatable].

  129. ShadowFox said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 11:34 pm

    Oh, and one more thing–you're going (along with the authors of the original list) for only one gloss. There are multiple and what they have in common is the melancholy and sadness.

    The truly untranslatable words are essentially nonce words that make sense only to a particular audience of native speakers. They cannot be translated because they describe something unique. One such word–a particularly famous one–was used in a Russian film with a plot that involved difficulties of a translator. It's Dostoyefskii's coinage of "obliz'iana", which conveys both the similarly sounding meaning of "obez'iana" == monkey/ape and something slithering/slimy that is not present in the original word–and a connotation that would only be available to a reader with a full native command of the language.

    Translation is really largely a frequency matching process–parallel glosses in two languages that frequently appear in the same context are usually translated as each other. But throw in a unique word and the frequency count drops to zero. There are no matches in any context because the word simply does not exist. If it's a composite, there is some hope of resurrecting the meaning of the word in some way–in German, it's usually a calque, in other languages it may be a direct borrowing (e.g., schadenfreude). Occasionally, if the construction is idiomatic and does not match the meanings of its constituents, there may be a parallel idiom that uses completely unrelated terminology. But a nonce word cannot be translated at all. There is no underlying structure to build on. Any reasonable attempt would be short of the mark.

  130. Julie said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

    I don't know if anyone else noticed, but "l'appel du vide" is pretty much exactly the same as "the call of the void"–both literally and figuratively. And translation cannot mean lack of a one word equivalent when the original phrase isn't one word!

  131. Mark F. said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

    As far as I can tell, "prank" meaning "just let it ring once", is not well established in American English, and there's no idiomatic equivalent in my idiolect. Letting it ring once would be a way of pinging someone, but they're not identical concepts. Contra GKP, I think this absence of a word is actually at least marginally informative, since it suggests that Americans don't do the action all that much. If one-ringing someone is something you do often, it's a trivial matter to make up a word for it, so it seems as if the fact that we haven't adopted a word for it tells you something.

  132. boynamedsue said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

    While it is true that phrases and words can always be expressed in one language can be expressed in another, the existance of a single word or short expression does reflect an importance attached to said concept by the speech community that uses it, which does not exist for some other speech communities.

    An example might be "in the way" for an English person (as in, "Let's move, we're in the way"), which is not easily translated into Spanish… Maybe "impidiendo injustamente las actividades que tienen derecho de llevarse a cabo en este lugar".

    Similarly "hangover" can only be translated into Italian as a sentence ("Ho bevuto troppo ieri, i non me sento bene"), reflecting the fact that Italians consider drinking to excess to be shameful.

    The presence of these short phrses does have an effect on the culture as it reinforces cultural tendencies and shapes the way people think and feel about given situations. The classic example being the difficulty English learners have in distinguishing between "Tengo sueño" (I'm tired because I haven't slept") and "Estoy cansado" ("I'm tired due to excessive activity "). While both phrases can clearly be differentiated in English, and so are translatable, not only does an English speaker usually fail to distinguish between them when speaking Spanish, they are often unable to physically distinguish between the two sensations when experiencing them, and Anglophone Spanish-learners OFTEN NEED TO be persuaded that there actually is a difference between the two conditions.

  133. Ahayweh said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 7:07 pm

    @boynamedsue- Firstly, I'm slowly learning Spanish and didn't know about that distinction yet, so thank you. Secondly, native English-speakers often have problems with that, really? It sounds just like the distinction between "sleepy" and "worn out", and I can't imagine any Anglophones I know having trouble with that.

  134. GeorgeW said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 8:20 pm

    Mark F: ". . . so it seems as if the fact that we haven't adopted a word for it tells you something."

    I agree. It doesn't mean that the idea cannot be expressed in another language. But, it may well indicate cultural concerns, interests, etc. Arabian desert residents, as an example, have no need for a bunch of snow words.

  135. E said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 8:35 pm

    I am a monolingual English speaker and I've never had problems distinguishing the feeling of sleep-deprivation from the feeling of being worn out by activity. For that matter, as my previous sentence demonstrates, it's not like English is incapable of making that distinction. Also, I don't know if this is just me, but I'd use the word "exhausted" only to describe being tired because of prolonged activity.

  136. Weltanschauung said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 9:57 pm

    @boynamedsue, here's a further illustration of your (slightly Whorfian) observation about synonyms:
    When I was an exchange student in a German Gymnasium (which was not a gymnasium), the physics teacher took class time to remind us of the difference between schwimmen like an animate creature (fish or frog or human swimmer) and schwimmen like a block of wood. In English, you can tell your class the conditions under which an object will float without having to disambiguate "float".

  137. John Cowan said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 1:35 am

    The joke about there being no word in Yiddish for 'disappointed' is just that, a joke. The word is antoisht.

  138. Jarmila said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 10:39 am

    Jeff R.:
    "Even stronger, imagine trying to translate this dialog the rest of the way from Czech:
    – How are you feeling?
    – Litost"

    Hard to imagine. "Litost" is a noun. :-)

    Either (better for Czech):
    – Co citite?
    – Litost

    – What do you feel?
    – Sorrow


    Or (better for English):
    – Jak se citite?
    – Je mi to lito

    – How are you feeling?
    – I'm sorry/sad

  139. John Baker said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 11:00 am

    John Cowan – Thanks for the information that "disappointed" does have a Yiddish equivalent. I'm a little surprised to learn this ("surprised," in this case, referring to my surprise, and not to doubt concerning your post), because a substantial part of the audience for Isaac Asimov's joke, which turned on the absence of a Yiddish equivalent, would have known Yiddish. While jokes can in many cases convey substantive information, I guess this wasn't one of them.

  140. David J. Littleboy said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 11:28 am

    "Translators are usually very unsatisfactory company for others who are not language people"

    Oh, god, yes. When I'm out with our CEO (a Japanese national) and someone says, "Hey, Dave, how do you say X in English", I'll get to work figuring out a good way to say X that really captures what the bloke wanted to say, preparing a mini-lecture on the various options and how the context affects word choice. Meanwhile, our CEO (who is not fond of, nor even particularly interested in, English) will come up with the primary dictionary gloss pretty much instantly, making the interlocutor happy and me look catatonic. (This actually has happened several times.)

  141. George said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    'Jayus' is possibly related to the Hiberno-English 'Jaysus', which is the appropriate reaction to such a joke.

  142. W. Kiernan said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 7:28 pm

    Jeff R.:

    Michael Farris:

    "If a Czech sentence is can be translated (apart from the relevant word):

    He was overcome by a feeling of litost.


    He was overcome by a feeling of agony and torment sparked by the sudden perception of his misery. "

    Why wouldn't "despair" work?

  143. Michael R said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 10:21 am

    Prozvonit is done in Africa. When I was there we called it "flashing" in English.

  144. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

    I don't speak Spanish but am tempted to very unseriously proffer the Hiberno-English word "chancer" as a possible translation of "chanta".

  145. Jim said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

    While "ping" comes out of tech circles, it has the potential to bridge into non-tech geek circles via Monty Python — "Ah, I see you have the machine that goes ping" — coupled with short ping-like noises being common as incoming text message indicators.

    So quite literally, sending someone a brief status via text message (I'm here, On my way, etc.) is "ping"-ing them.

  146. Benjamin Slade said,

    November 3, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

    What about particles more generally? Like Hindi तो or ही? One might offer a (partial) description of where they're used, but I can't think of how one would translate them (even lifting the one word requirement). (German has a number of these too, but I'm less familiar with their usage.)

  147. teucer said,

    November 3, 2010 @ 11:40 pm

    Seems to me that all the real near-untranslatables are as hard to explain in their native languages as in foreign ones. I mean, I can't give an English translation for "duende" (although I think I mostly get the concept, although only mostly) – but I can't define it any better in Spanish, either.

    And I'd be hard-pressed to actually explain what "fairness" really is, even though I'm a native English speaker; it's certainly not the same as "justice." The nearest Spanish equivalent (justo) is probably better regarded as meaning "just" – but that doesn't mean fairness is hard to translate so much as it means it's hard to explain, and in English we avoid explaining it by slapping a label on it and hoping our interlocutors feel the same way about it that we do. They usually don't, but they're generally close enough for meaningful discussion to continue with reference to the mostly-shared notion.

  148. Teresa said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

    My favorite "untranslatable" words (into English) are all from science-fiction. Some author has made up a word that humans should not be able to understand properly—but, of course, since the author is human, we usually can. Moreover, since they were specifically selected to be "untranslatable" concepts, they tend to fill in holes that English doesn't have.

    "Grok", of course, has been fairly widely accepted, at least by the geek community. But I have yet to run into a decent translation of Cherryh's "man'chi" (rough gloss: the grouping instinct under fire; the urge to follow one's leader under pressure). Despite the fact that it was invented to describe a sensation humans (putatively) cannot feel, I find that the phrase "divided man'chi" is a fairly accurate description of how I feel when I try to explain to my thesis advisor that I have not been able to do something because my undergraduates have an exam this week. I would certainly say that in an academic sense I have man'chi to my advisor/department, and share that man'chi with my fellow graduate students. Does anyone have a succinct English substitution so I can explain to non-academic, non-Cherryh-readers what I feel?

  149. roberto said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 3:28 am

    "prozvonit Czech –
    call a cellphone once so the other person will call back on their dime"

    well, in the philippines, the term we use for this is to "miscall"–an understanding that you do not have sufficient load to sustain a call, and would appreciate the other party to do the calling instead.

  150. Anthony said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 2:58 pm

    John Baker – Asimov tells the joke, but he then explains that there really is a word for disappointed in Yiddish: entoisht.

    Look here

  151. Anthony said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

    Teresa – "grok" = "understand instinctively", or, more volubly, "understand at a deeper level than mere intellectual understanding", as anyone who groks the concept would be able to tell you.

    I suspect that many claims of untranslatability are actually claims that without having absorbed the culture that produced the word, one cannot grok the word.

    Cherryh's "man'chi" seems like there's be an obvious word, but I don't have a military background (and am not an anthropologist), so I can't produce an English word right away. There's probably a German word shorter than "Schadenfreude" for it, though. The slightly longer explanations in English all seem to be verb phrases, while it sounds like "man'chi" is a noun, which will create some difficulty.

  152. Onki said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

    prozvonit = anklingeln in German.
    anklingeln does not necessarily imply that you want them to call you back

  153. E said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 1:28 am

    Would the phrase "safety in numbers" work for man'chi? Or maybe "herd mentality"?

  154. |Agent said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

    It has been a while since I have read any of Cherryh's Foreigner books, but I always thought "duty along the chain of command" was a fair translation of "man'chi." The trick, in those books, is that humans can mistake that duty as other emotions, and humans do not instinctively balance man'chi like the atevi do.

  155. zé do rock said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 10:36 am

    yeah, portuguese 'saudade' is definitely nothing original; exept for the fact that portuguese reportedly feel it all the time – the great times when the seas belonged to them…

    xmun, good one: germans sufring torschlusspanik should hav mor wabi-sabi.

    i think german 'fernweh' ("far-woe") has to be translated in other languages with something like 'longing to be in a far place'. but peeple wouldnt think of it that way, i guess most peeple would say 'wen ar my bloody holidays?"

    and i wonder if other languages hav a translation for (brazilian?) portuguese 'rebolar'. it meens bouncing with the hips and the ass wen yu walk or dance. usualy only wimmen and (rather extroverted) gays do it.

    german 'bierselig' ("beer-souly", but in german the 'souly' meens happy) – joyus after drinking sum beers and uther alcohol.

    drahtesel (wire-ass, in the zoological sense…) isnt bad either, but eesily translatable: bicicle.

  156. Mira said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

    Kundera's whole "lítost" thing is pretty silly. It can't say much about the Czech soul when "sorriness" is a perfectly good English word, and it has exactly the same meaning.

  157. Piotr said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 5:19 pm

    A few notes on the Polish equivalents of "prozvonit" – no single word for that, but there are quite a few expressions Polish, the most widespread one (at least from my experience) being "puścić sygnał," which is simply "to send a signal".

    Others include "puścić strzałkę (to send an arrow/a pointer), "puścić głuchego" (to send a deaf one, as discussed above, may be related to "głuchy telefon" "deaf telephone," which is our name for Chinese whispers), and "puścić krótkiego" (to send a short one).

    I find the arrow one kind of similar to the Australian one discussed by BlakeMB above, "to sting sb" – a sharp object used for "hunting" ones attention, probably "hook" would be also good in English.

    I'd say the purpose of "stinging" is not necessarily a part of the meaning of the phrase itself, it is called the same regardless of the caller's intentions, which may be "call me, I can't afford the conversation" or "I arrived safely" or "I'd like to remind you that…" or even "hiya" (kids in middle school are stinging each other all the time, using it as a little token of affection/attention/interest/friendship, it's like poking on facebook).

  158. Jen said,

    November 26, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    Regarding the use of "prank" in non-American anglophone countries as a translation of the concept of prozvonit:

    Yet again, we're looking at cultures divided by a "common" language. Americans prank call each other too, but it's not the same thing. To prank somebody in America generally implies a mischiveous or malicious intent. The actually events are the same: party 1 calls party 2, not expecting a call back, but the purpose is completely different.

    In non-American anglophone countries, I understand pranking as a way of letting somebody know that you've arrived at your destination, or as a benign signal of some sort to the second party. In America, pranking is an immature joke. Americans are more likely to prank somebody that they don't know by calling and either taking on a false personality or simply hanging up and repeating the call-hang up cycle several times. Of course, one may prank their friends as well, but we very rarely use it as an actual signal with any kind of functional meaning.

  159. Francis said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 11:25 am

    Wouldn't "tousle" be a decent translation of "cafuné"?

  160. William Steed said,

    May 28, 2011 @ 6:07 pm

    I haven't seen 'hyggelig' turn up on one of these lists before. We recently came across its Anglo-Saxon cognate here while reading 'The Ruin'. It uses 'hygelic' with pretty much this meaning.

  161. Ethan said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 6:03 am

    The notion that "antoisht" (probably better spelled "entoisht") is Yiddish for "disappointed" strikes me as comical. What we see here is an American English phonetic spelling, more or less, of the German word "enttäuscht" ("disappointed"). Now, any attempt to answer the question "What is the Yiddish word for X?" turns ultimately on the question, "What is Yiddish, anyway?" Many relatively hifalutin German words were smuggled into Yiddish texts (and dictionaries) from the 19th century onward by intellectuals who were attempting to create a classier Yiddish than the plain speech of the ordinary people around them. On the other hand, one might argue that every German word is a potential Yiddish word in the same way that every Hebrew (or even Aramaic or Russian or Polish or Hungarian) word is. The basic feature of Yiddish, it seems to me, is that it contains no foreign elements whatsoever — because there is no boundary. In America, where a large number of Yiddish speakers live today, the commonest Yiddish word for "disappointed" is "disappointed."

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