10 Untranslatable Foreign Language Words

If you thought that English could express, explain and verbalize it all – well, guess what? It can not. While English being as comprehensive and vast as we know it to be, there are words from other foreign languages which can’t directly be replaced or translated into English. Here’s a list 10 fascinating words that cannot be (and believe us, people have tried!) directly translated into English.

Each of these words is unique in its own language and the fact that it’s so, makes it incredibly fascinating; given how very delicate and fragile each and every language is to the culture it pertains to!

Here we go!

Toska – Russian

This word can be described best in the words of Vladimir Nabokov: ‘No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases, it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.’

Litost – Czech

According to the famous Milind Kundera, the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, ‘As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it.’

The closest definition of Litost is a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery! Deeply provoking?

Prozvonit – Czech

This word means or refers to the act of calling someone on a mobile phone and letting it ring only once so that the person who has been called, calls back, thus saving the money of the original caller.

In Spanish, the word for this is ‘Dar Un Toque’ or, ‘To give a touch’. Surprisingly, this word can be translated into languages other than English.

Torschlusspanik – German

Literally translated, this word means ‘gate closing panic’, but contextually the meaning refers to ‘the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages.’

This can somewhat explain why so many older/elderly people wish to ‘recapture their youth’ in an attempt to reestablish their passed opportunities.

Wabi Sabi – Japanese

A lot has been written about this profound Japanese concept: but if one tries to understand it in a sentence, this is probably how it would go. ‘A way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay.’

L’appel du vide – French

The literal translation of this French expression is ‘The Call of the Void.’

Colloquially it can be used to express the instinctive urge to jump from high places!

Strangely morbid?

Ya’aburnee – Arabic

This incantatory word, both exquisitely beautiful and morbid at once, means, ‘You bury me’, a somewhat declaration of one’s hope that they will die before another person, mostly because of how difficult it would be to be alive without them.

Duende – Spanish

Though originally this word was used to describe ‘a mythical, sprite like entity that possesses humans and created the feeling of awe of one’s surrounding in nature’ – however its meaning has transitioned into describing, ‘the mysterious power that a work of art has over a person to have him deeply moved by it.’

Saudade – Portuguese

A precious, deeply beautiful but haunting word whether it is translatable or not – this word refers ‘to the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost.’

Fado music, a type of mournful singing relates to Saudade.

Mamihlapinatapai – Yagan (indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego) an archipelago off the coast of South America.

The word can be described as ‘The wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.’
The state of many a could-have-been couples, right?

Comments

  1. Machina says

    Romanian word “dor” has the meaning of ‘missing someone’. It has no translation in other languages, which only have an expression or more for this feeling, while the Romanian language has only one word.

  2. me says

    I would like to add:
    DOINA – a word that represents the name of a romanian musical genre that expresses the feelings of grief, nostalgia, happiness and bliss that one can experience while seeing a wonderful scenery, remembering a moment of his past or longing for something that he cannot have. It is mostly sang by people who heard their sheep on bountiful green plains in the beautiful summer time and normally involves a flute or a simmilar instrument.

  3. ARbourman says

    Great list! As for Prozvonit, in Australia this is generally known as to ‘prank’.

  4. Tamil says

    The word Prozvonit – Czech. The english word or phrase is ” give me a missed call”.

  5. Steve @ Anglais Recylé says

    The French expression “mouton à cinq pattes” has always avoided translation into English.

  6. Duende says

    “Duende” means “Goblin”… it’s quite translatable… Dubby (Harry Potter’s friend) is a Duende

  7. Midnight says

    …about “lítost” (or “litost”, as it’s written in article, probably from fear of UTF-8 :-D) – it really did surprise me, and i’ve been surprised even more by its description. “lítost” is simply, easily, and pretty accurately translated as “regret” – it’s used in the same sentences as in english, in the same meaning… yes, it also conveys the meaning of “sorry” (in “i’m sorry”), but it’s very close, it’s still basically the same thing.

    the “state of agony upon realizing one’s own misery” has a different word, though derived from “litost” – it’s “sebelítost”, which …i have the tendency to translate as self-regret (word-by-word: “sebe” = self, “lítost” = regret), but “being sorry about yourself” would be probably more meaningful to the english speaking people.

    next time, you might consider a better word from czech (or slovak, as they’ve got about 85% of vocabulary and gramatics the same, despite being different languages), such as “bryndza”, which is a type of cheese that no other language has a word for, because no other country except slovakia and czech republic knows it :)

  8. guest says

    American’s use of the word “awkward”, especially in a social context, is really hard to translate….

    Citing the awkward turtle doesn’t help either.

  9. RandomCebuano says

    @amawtangtanan: haha :) i don’t even know the english word for “hinampiling” (is there?)

  10. Lindsay says

    Untranslatable? Well you just translated them all. In phrases rather than words, but you did translate them. Which raises the question – where does translation stop and description begin?

    And toska to me sounds like Weltschmerz (as we also say in English).

    The things that I would say are really untranslatable, as Midnight said, are things like food and implements that simply do not exist in other cultures and languages (I just came across a piece of rage gied to a long pole for cleaning high ceilings – in local Spanish an escobiño). For this reason plants and animals have a unique Latin classification.

  11. John Tracy says

    Wow. Great article. The best definition I’ve ever heard of saudade – the portugues word is ” missing someone even before they are gone.”

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