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10 Elusive and Untranslatable Words When You Find Yourself Speechless

Posted on Fri, Sep 14, 2012 @ 09:09 AM

Unreadable textLanguage, of course, is the translator’s specialty. Despite their expertise and linguistic dexterity, however, they 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 cringing over the sound your husband makes when he eats his tomato soup or feeling tongue-tied when someone lays on you a scathing remark, look no further: Here are 10 more nearly untranslatable words that’ll come in handy when you find yourself speechless:

10 Elusive and Untranslatable Words for When You Find Yourself Speechless

    1. Saper vivere (Italian)
    (suh-pear VEE-Vair-ay)
    Literally translated, Knows how to live.
    Ever meet someone so amenable that she could tolerate and appease even the most intolerable people with grace and poise? Then you know someone with the gift of saper vivere.

    2. Mbuki-mvuki (Bantu)
    The Bantus know how to party. Literally translated, mbuki-mvuki means to shake off one’s clothes in order to dance. Here’s an interesting factoid about mbuki-mvuki courtesy of Howard Rheingold: long ago, mbuki-mvuki migrated up the Mississippi to become the direct precursor to what is now known as boogie woogie.

    3. Suilk (Scottish)
    Two things I’ll never forget about dinner with my great grandfather: One, he mixed Italian and Ranch dressing on his salad; two, much to my grandmother’s dismay, he would suilk any liquid—coffee, red wine, tomato soup—he encountered. Literally translated, suilk (which rhymes with "milk") means to make excessive slobbering sounds when eating or drinking.

    4. Epater les bourgeois (French)
    (“Eh-pah-TAY lay boor-JWAH”)
    Literally translated: To amaze the middle class. Raucous behavior and uniquely placed body piercings are only the tip of the iceberg. To epater les bourgeois, you would have to deliberately offend.

    5. Far secco qualcuno (Italian)
    Literally translated: To leave someone dry.
    In one exchange between Lady Astor—the first woman to sit as a Conservative Member of Parliament—and Winston Churchill, Astor said, “Winston, if you were my husband, I’d put poison in your coffee.” His retort: “Nancy, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.” I don’t know how Astor responded, but my guess is that she experienced far secco qualcuno and then said nothing.

    6. Drachenfutter (German)
    It’s Saturday morning. There’s a pleasant smell of French roasted coffee and pancakes in the air, but your gut tells you something is amiss. Then it hits you: You’ve forgotten your anniversary. Now you better polish your silver tongue and offer a drachenfutter. Literally translated: A peace offering from a guilty husband.

    7. Frotteur (French)
    Man who rubs up against strangers in crowds. We could say more, but won’t.

    8. Yugen (Japanese)

    Literally translated: An awareness of the universe that triggers feelings too deep to be put into words. Back in graduate school, I tried reading Jacques Lacan’s Seminars. I never made it, but I do remember what he said about The Real: It’s a state of nature that we’ll never experience once we’ve acquired language because the very entrance into language marks our irrevocable separation from it. Maybe I’m forcing a connection, but both The Real and Yugen get at the heart of a linguistic truth: Language is a great tool, but it has severe limitations and inadequacies.

    9. Kolleh (Yiddish)

    There’s a saying that “every bride is beautiful”—or in this case, “every bride is a Kolleh. Whether or not that’s true, I’ll leave you to decide, but kolleh literally translated means beautiful bride. 

    10. Lagom (Swedish)
    Refers to an unidentified state between polarities. In other words, it’s not “too much” and not “too little,” but it is just right.

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      Topics: Modern Language Translation, Spanish Translation Course, French Translation Certification, Online Translation Certification Arabic, Translation and interpretation studies, Translation Classes Online, untranslatable words

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