Lost in Translation: 10 Words that are Untranslatable to English

Lost in translation

If someone said to you “bury me”, how would you react? Shocked and puzzled most likely. But in the Middle East, “tu’burnee”, literally translated from Arabic to “bury me” is a term of endearment wishing you a longer life than the person who says it.

With over 250,000 words in the English

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language, you would think there would be an equivalent word to convey this meaning. Indeed there are many words that are unique to a particular language and culture; while we may understand the general concept, no single English word exists for them – they are untranslatable.

Hygge: It’s amazing how one word can convey so much. This Danish word means relaxing with friends and family in an atmosphere of tranquility and coziness over food and drinks. Hygge is particularly associated with Christmas and summer evenings.

Uitwaaien: Need to escape the stress of your daily life and take a walk in the outdoors to unwind and clear your mind? The Dutch have a word for it: “Uitwaaien.”

Tartle: In Scottish it’s that awkward moment when you want to introduce someone and forget their name.

Jayus: In Indonesia, this word means hearing such a bad joke that you can’t help but laugh.

Ilunga: This word from the Tshiluba language spoken in south-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most difficult words to translate. It means “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time.”

Layogenic: In the Tagalog language of the Philippines, this word describes someone “who is only attractive from a distance.”

Tingo: If you travel to Easter Island, hopefully this is a word you will

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not hear! It means “borrowing things from a friend until nothing is left.”

Iktsuarpok: The Inuit use this word to describe the action of going outside to check if anyone is coming.

Sobremesa: In Spanish it refers to the time spent lingering at the table after a meal, chatting, drinking coffee and liqueurs or watching TV.

Schadenfreude: In German this word refers to a person who takes pleasure in others’ misfortunes.

  • ConnieHinesDorothyProvine

    English uses Schadenfreude.

    • Hala

      Thank you for your comment. You are correct, it is a loanword in English; however, because it is a fairly new addition to the English language, it is not yet widely known and used. The focus of the post was also to illustrate foreign words that do not have single English word equivalents.  

  • Jim Mahler

    You’ve just translated the ten untranslatable words. Just because you can’t translate one word into one word, but have to add a few words in explanation, doesn’t mean you can’t translate. For example, to translate “see” into Chinese requires two words, 看见, literally “look (and) sense”, but that doesn’t mean “see” is untranslatable.

  • AlexUnited

    The Russian words Razbliuto is another word that is not directly able to be translated into English. It tries to express the sentimental feeling you have about someone you once loved but no longer do.

    See a list of other such words:http://www.language-united.com/non-existent-words.html