20 Elusive & Untranslatable Words for the Speechless

Posted on Fri, Aug 24, 2012 @ 09:08 AM

Translation DictionaryDespite the fact that words are their business, translators often encounter elusive or untranslatable words that simply don’t have an equivalent counterpart in the other language.

When all else fails, the translator has to do the best s/he can to explain the word. Depending on the cultural differences and the complexity of the word, though, this can prove to be challenging.

If you ever find yourself trying to describe the feeling of running your hand through your spouse’s hair, or feeling like you looked better before your $10 haircut, or the uncanny feeling of being unable to describe the horror of looking at yourself in the mirror after you’ve had that nasty flu virus, look no further: Here are 20 nearly untranslatable words that’ll come in handy when you find yourself speechless:

20 Elusive & Untranslatable Words for the Speechless

1. Schadenfreude
—The feeling of pleasure derived by seeing another’s misfortune.

2. L’appel du vide
French—The literal translation: “The call of the void.” More specifically, an instinctive urge to jump from high places.

3. Ya’aburnee
—Both morbid romantic. Literally translated: “You bury me.” Ya’aburnee is to wish that one dies before the beloved so that s/he does not have to feel the pain of the other’s absence.

4. Mamihlapinatapei
Yagan (the indigenous language of the Tierra del Fuego region of South America)— The ineffable, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.

5. Litost

—The closest definition is a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.

6. Cafuné
Brazilian Portuguese
—The act of tenderly running your fingers through someone’s hair. 

7. Wabi-Sabi

—A way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay.

8. Forelsket
The euphoria someone feels the first time he or she falls in love.

9. L’esprit de l’escalier
Usually translated as “staircase wit,” or the act of thinking of a clever comeback, but only once it is too late to deliver it.

10.  Gigil
Filipino Gheegle—
The urge to squeeze or pinch something that is so cute it is unbearable.

Pena ajena
Mexican Spanish
—Ever seen someone make such a fool of themselves that you were embarrassed? Then you were experiencing pena ajena.

12.  Waldeinsamkeit
—The feeling of being alone in the woods.

13.  Age-otori
—Your hair stylist is booked for the week, but you can’t manage your unruly locks one more day. So you go to the salon down the street (they accepts walk-ins), but you end up with Age-otori. Translation: To look worse after having a haircut. 

—Literally translated, “face badly in need of a fist.”

—Having nerves before you embark on a journey.

To allow a lover access to his or her bed—but only for chitchat.

—Literally translated, “see-you-home wolf.” Basically, an Okuri-okami is a guy who pretends to be a gentleman by offering to see a girl home, but then tries to molest her once he gets her there.

—Café customers who spend a lot of time at a table but little money.

Scottish Gaelic
—When people rudely interrupt you at meal time.

—Landing an aircraft on water.

    1-4 from Matador Abroad
    5-8 from ALTA Language Services
    9-15 from Upon My Word
    16-20 from Better Than English


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