Untranslatable Words

Here’s an article that caught my attention: 20 Awesomely Untranslatable Words from Around the World. Being a Swiss-German in NYC there are a few instances where I wish I could use certain Swiss-German words when speaking English and vice versa. Here are a few of the untranslatable words that caught my eye in the article.

German – Translated literally, this word means “gate-closing panic,” but its contextual meaning refers to “the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages.”

Scottish – The act of hestitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name.

Czech – This word means to call a mobile phone and let it ring once so that the other person will call back, saving the first caller money. In Spanish, the phrase for this is “Dar un toque,” or, “To give a touch.”

French – The feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country.

Can you think of any expressions to add?

(via Sy)

70 Comments leave a comment below

  1. Torschlusspanik = Middle-life Crisis in American English.

  2. “lagom” Swedish word without corresponding translation in english. It means “not too much and not too little” and is of course very relative to the person saying it.

  3. When I was in Freiburg and Switzerland, I often heard ‘kip’ e.g, “Kip das Fenster,’ for windows that both swung open and titled.

    Many dormitories have windows like this and I often found myself wanting to say, “Hey, kip the window.”

    Another one is Chuchaqui in Latin America (Quechua/Spanish). It translates are hungover, but it also can mean to be getting drunk. One can be totally chuchaquied from last night or go get chuchaqui.

    ‘Fika’ is another notable, from Swedish.

  4. Prozvonit in Italy is “uno squillo” and in english is “one bell”…

  5. Shallow – in french, we just have ‘not deep’, which has bothered me ever since I learned the word shallow,

  6. The actual translation for Torschlusspanik would be last-minute-panic

  7. Fingerspitzengefühl = feeling in the tip of the fingers (a metaphor for ….hmmm…it is really hard to translate, … for intuition-driven knowledge)


    Pittermesser = a small knife for peeling e.g. vegetables

    halt (“Das ist halt so”) = an avoidable fill-word that cannot explained to foreign-speakers

  8. I’ve always been fascinated by this type of thing. I remember in high school, a German foreign exchange student asked me, “What is the word in English for the back of a chair?” That was the first time I considered that having words for things (or not) can actually shape the way you look at the world.

    There was a long discussion thread about a week ago on Reddit about this very topic. A word of warning: a lot of the discussion centered around untranslatable insults, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

    What are your favorite culturally untranslatable phrases?

  9. I love words like that! The only other one I could think of was “Eselsbrücke”, which is “donkey bridge” when literally translated. I guess you could translate it to “memory aid”, but that doesn’t do it justice.

    I bet there are more weird words like that in the swiss language. I think “Heimweh” is a pretty popular one. Longing for home was invented by swiss soldiers, I ask myself why. Oh yeah, because it’s beautiful around here!

  10. In portuguese we have the word “Saudade” which is “The feeling of missing someone”. =)

  11. Also, in Portuguese “dar um toque” just means “to get back (to someone) later”. It is a very old expression, way before mobile phone were ever possible in Brazil. I wonder if it is also an old expression in Spanish that just took on a new life …

  12. Most words used in English which are direct borrows don’t have good translations:


    There’s also the now-famous “Ubuntu” from Swahili which means “I am because we are”, or something.

    And don’t forget Danish word “arbejdsglæde”, (happy at work) made famous by Alex from http://positivesharing.com

  13. … saudade … a beautiful … melancholic melodious brazilian word … meaning the longing … the homesickness … the wanting to be there … there isn’t a word like it in neither english … nor german, french, italian or spanish … saudade da santa terra … homesickness … longing for the hallowed land and beaches of brazil!

  14. Coincé, a French word for uptight, but far more effective than uptight. Also, “glok” which sort of means lame/boring in French, but again, there;s no real English word to fully describe it.

  15. Czech and Slovak “pohoda”, “pohodicka” – a noun that means the state that is exactly the opposit of stress. Usually involves just hanging out and enjoying the fact of being alive. One can “make it”, “have it”, alone or with friends… or it can just “be there (or here)”. Not translatable into American English. I wonder why.

  16. The Malay word “Sayang” has no equivalent word in English to describe a common emotion in Malaysia. it is affection, love, sorrow and pity all at the same time. Kind of like being happy and sad at the same moment.
    In saying goodbye to some one dear you may feel sayang. Happy to know and love them, sad that you will never see them again.

  17. I think “untranslatable” is the wrong term, since you’ve obviously translated each of the terms into English.

    Although I guess “lack of an exact one-word equivalent” doesn’t sound as pithy.

  18. Douglas Adams – The meaning of Liff
    That is all I’m going to suggest

  19. I’ve always loved the French “L’esprit de l’escalier”, which describes the feeling one gets when thinking of the perfect comeback only after leaving. “I should have said…”

  20. La ach hatem in arabic means “laundry”, but like a child’s laundry. We don’t really have a word for it.

  21. “Nya gung bay chuk tai” in a certain Chinese dialect means “Your grandfather got butchered by a burglar!” The expression means, “What a rip-off!”

  22. sayang (malay) , saudade (brazilian), dor (romanian).. we all think that these words are untranslatable even if they point in the same direction . Yet we all “feel them” regardless of language. We are much more the same than we may to want to imagine

  23. Kantönligeist. Perfect word to describe many aspects of Switzerland to foreigners. If they would only understand it.
    I also like lädele. It’s meaning is somewhere between shopping and window shopping.
    What are your Swiss German words you would like to use Swiss miss?

  24. Regarding “Dépaysement” – it is also the feeling of well-being experienced by not being home.

  25. Also, in french, the word “spleen” refers to a state of pensive sadness / melancholy. Don’t think there is an equivalent in English…

  26. It took me a while to understand ‘glok’ – glauque is the spelling, K are excessivelly rare in french. Lame boring would a way of translating it, but it’s more like a place/Thing/situation that feels wrong in a sad and disguting way.

  27. fremdschämen – to feel embarrassed for someone else

  28. der Ohrwurm – A German word for a song that is stuck in your head. Literally, and “ear worm.” Love it!

  29. In Argentina, we say “fiaca” refering to a lack of motivation to do something. I don’t really know how to explain it but it doesn’t mean you are tired, it doesn’t mean you are sad, its similar to laziness, but its the thing you feel even when you are not a lazy person…

    We also have a slang, a mix between spanish, italian, polish, english words, called “lunfardo” with many many words like: “chirusa” (a girl who is not a slut or easy but seems to be… because of her ban manners), “pichincha” (a really cheap thing, a treat but probably a really bad quality thing too), or “gusa” (the feeling of being hungry but not for food but for a delicious piece of some kind of food you are not sure what is).

    And I just remembered: in the novel Happines, by Will Ferguson, the characters talk about words that describe such complex concepts that you can’t translate them: mono-no-awaré (japanese for “the sadness of the things – I’m translating from spanish, sorry), or mokita (a word from New Guinea, that describes “the truth nobody says”).

    I’m sorry for any mispelled word. I not used to write so many word in english…


  30. There’s also a word called “Litost”
    Check it out

  31. There is a great book called ‘The Meaning of Tingo… and other extraordinary words from around the world” by Adam Jacot de Boinod. I found it on Amazon. It is FULL of these kinds of words and the great stories behind them.

    From the cover art of the book:

    tingo (Pascuense, Easter Island) to take all the objects one desires from the house of a friend, one at a time, by borrowing them

    nakur (Persian) a camel that won’t give milk until its nostrils are tickled

    areodjarekput (Inuit) to exhcnage wives for a few days only

    Zechpreller (German) someone who leaves without paying the bill

  32. One of my favorite phrases in Italian is “avere una storia”. It has a hard to translate but evocative double meaning; it can literally mean ‘to have history (with someone),’ but when used in a romantic context it can mean something much more elaborate based on context—a long torrid love affair, a single date, a funny story, etc.

    I guess it is sort of like how the term “hooking up” in English can have many different meanings—from a business conversation to a one night stand.

  33. “Desenrascanço” (Portuguese) – To manage to do something in adverse conditions, without the proper equipment or materials: Remember MacGuyver? How he could make a bomb out of unexpected stuff? That’s the way :)

  34. About Daniela’s word: There’s even an argentinian film entitled “La fiaca” that’s a comedy about this very feeling.

  35. Weltanschauung :) One of the few german words I know.

    And it’s very entertaining to look up the definitions with google. :)

  36. In English there is no real way of saying the German ‘Ich hab dich lieb’ (or the italian version ‘ti voglio bene’) meaning more than ‘I like you’ but less than ‘I love you’; something you would say to your parents or a very close friend.

  37. another german word: Gemuetlichkeit. I always think of a beer garden when this word comes to mind… the feeling of contentment and happiness with friends.

  38. So I’m a professional tartler :)

  39. “prozvonit” = “dodgy” to most english teens, as in “mate, there’s no point in dodgying me, i’ve got no credit either!” x

  40. Hygge the danish ( norwegian originated ) word for in simple terms “well being” but like Saudade its a sense an inward expression of a complex group of feelings.. in the hygge sense ..a sense of well being like when gathered together for food and drink in the cosy secure fellowship of those whose eyes you gaze into and who gaze back with the light reflecting in both.


  41. Waldeinsamkeit. the feeling of being alone in the woods.

  42. In Japanese, there’s a term “ichigo ichie.” It’s been explained to me as a “one-time meeting that lasts a lifetime.” It’s actually the Japanese title for the movie “Forrest Gump,” which is where I saw it the first time.

    I also remember a term that I think is “koutsujyutai,” which had a really cool meaning in English, but my memory has failed me. Anyone know it? I remember it always impressing my Japanese counterparts when I said it.

  43. Certain countries use “flash my phone” or gimme a “missed call” for the same call-and-hangup procedure. :)

    I love “Fingerspitzengefühl”, it’s such a valuable word.

  44. Most german wods are not easy to translate for me. The neutral words are still a mistery, In english is only with “the” , in spanish, female “la” or masculine “el” , and german also has neutral “das”. this is just grammar. There is more poetic meaning around there.

  45. C’est la Beresina

    From the Napoleonic battle against Russia. When in French, we say ‘c’est la Beresina’, it means it’s an hopeless failure. I doubt this expression/term exists in English in that context, nor in German.

  46. In the French speaking part of Switzerland (la Romandie, another one that I can not translate) we have a word that does not even exist in French but is a very common thing:

    s’encoubler = to have your feet tangled into something and as a result to loose balance or even to fall

    I learned that it was not a french word when I was almost 20!! Clumsy people use that one often as one can “s’encoubler” in computer cable, a carpet, the legs of a chair and so on

    In Italian there is also a word that I use often but have not found an equivalent in french or english it is the adjective “trafficato/a”. It refers to a road or a place with a lot of traffic. “una strada trafficata” a road where there are a lot of cars passing. “una zona poco trafficata” a quiet area with not so much traffic. (look for that one when moving to italy!!)

  47. @Daniela, thanks for “gusa” the word I searched for so long!!

  48. The Dutch ‘gezellig’: cozy, neat, fun, close, warm…

  49. Someone just gave mean whole BOOK (yes, one of those paper things!) of these for my birthday. It’s called “Tingo” and is by Adam Jacot de Boinod. I don’t know whether it’s available in the US but it’s rather lovely!

  50. Prozvonit:

    There is a one-word translation in English. “Pranking” It’s a word my daughters use all the time: They say to me “I’ll prank you whan I need picking up.”

    From HarperCollins Neologism Dictionary:


    Noun British, informal, the practice of phoning a person and putting the phone down before they answer. This results in the person feeling obliged to return the call, which ensures that the original caller enjoys a conversation without paying for the call.

    See: http://www.answers.com/topic/prank

  51. I have no idea what the direct English translation is for the Korean word neu-kkee (느끼). I guess the closest word that comes to it is “greasy” or “oily,” but it’s much more than that. It’s more of a feeling than an adjective. It’s used to describe the feeling Koreans get when they eat other foods and haven’t eaten Korean food in a long time. It’s also used to describe certain people on how they look and talk. I have no idea how to explain it to my non-Korean friends!

  52. Seconding “Litost” (From The Book Of Laughter & Forgetting by Milan Kundera)

  53. Prozvonit: Persian (Iranian) equivalent is “میس انداختن” (“mis andaakhtan”), or “to leave a missed-call”.

  54. chüscherle :) It is something like whispering but with a more intimate touch. You would “chüscherle” with someone you like/family ect.

  55. Dépaysement
    French – The feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country.

    = homesick???

  56. “Craic” (pronounced like “crack”) is a slang word you’ll hear in Ireland. It basically means a good time. If your friends went out the night before you might ask “How was the craic?”, to which they could reply “it was good craic”. I can’t think of an equivalent English word…

  57. Jeez people, Brazilian is not a language – it’s called Portuguese!

    I was coming in to add Saudade to the list, but Desenrascanço is even better!

  58. “vedriti” is a verb in Slovenian without a one-word-equivalent in any language I know; it means “to take shelter from the rain”

  59. Check out this post on Language Log for a discussion of this list of words and the concept of “untranslatability”:


  60. @ Jamey: “koutsujyutai” is an insult which means something like “looking down on school drop-outs who did not even graduate from Junior High School”

    As far as Swiss German, I find “Röschtigrabe” a classic example. It stands for an imaginary (cultural) border between the Swiss German and French speaking population of Switzerland.

  61. Thanks Dimitri. I don’t remember that at all, so I’m glad you know it!

  62. sympatisch – German word referring to a sentiment that one feels toward another person (or thing). The English translation “nice” just doesn’t cut it. Sympatisch is deeper, it’s almost the chemistry felt between 2 people. It’s more than nice and less than crush. Also, it’s completely genderless and ageless.

  63. In hebrew: “Titchadesh”: which means something along the lines of enjoy your new thing.
    Also, “chaval al hazman”: which literally means “a shame for the time spent” – but in fact is used to evoke the view that some film, book, experience is so AMAZING that it would take up too much time to describe it to someone else.

  64. Surprisingly, no one mentioned the German loan word, schadenfreude – pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others

  65. there is a German word that describes the thinking of someone and then they ring, or the thinking of someone and then they come around the bend at the bus stop the moment after the thought has crossed one’s mind. does anyone know what it is? thanks!

  66. there is a German word that describes the thinking of someone and then they ring, or the thinking of someone and then they come around the bend at the bus stop the moment after the thought has crossed one’s mind. does anyone know what it is? It happens all the time. thanks!

  67. Us Native folks here in the USA have a word “enit” that really doesn’t translate well. It kind of means “isn’t it” but not really because it’s also a term for agreeing with someone. For instance “That guy’s a real idiot, enit?” Or “Man that sure is a sweet car!” “Enit!”

  68. I could be wrong, but I don’t think they’re actually saying “enit”. I think it’s “ain’t it” but pronounced like “enit” depending on the local accent…?