Translation at it’s best is a mixture of education, practice, and talent. But even the best translators sometimes have trouble conveying the true meaning of the original text. Languages across the world boast a richness of meaning, with incredibly succinct words.
Here are some of the unique words from all over the world that often defy direct translation and convey nuanced meanings.
In short, saudade is the feeling of longing for someone or something absent. On another level, saudade is actually a deep sense of nostalgia and melancholy, an awareness that something or someone who is loved might not return. Saudade might be explained as a melancholic craving after something absent, unattainable. Saudade has been a hallmark and inspiration of many poets, writers, and musicians. Portuguese speakers take great pride in the word and the sentiment behind it, and Brazilians even celebrate the Day of Saudade on January 30th. If you are considering to localize for Portuguese - understanding is a must.
Gluggaveður or “window-weather” signifies weather that is great - as long as you’re looking at it through a window. This can refer to enjoying a rainy day from the inside of your cozy home, with a nice cup of hot tea or coffee. On the other hand, it can also mean a sunny day with sharp, freezing winds.
If you ever thought someone has a “slappable face” - German language has you covered. Roughly translated as “a face that needs a slap”, backpfeifengesicht is usually used to describe someone whose behavior is so annoying that it invites a corrective slap.
Book hoarders, rejoice! Tsundoku is a japanese word that describes the active piling up of reading material, without actually reading it. This covers the “to-be-read bookshelves”, stacks on bed stands, and that pile that’s a result of a sale in your favorite bookstore.
Tsundoku is often equalized to bibliomania. Bibliomania can describe a “book madness” or as in Oxford dictionary, a definition of a “passionate enthusiasm for collecting and possessing books”. Tsundoku, on the other hand, carries an intention to read the books instead of just acquiring them, but not managing to.
Yagán, one of the indigenous languages of Tierra del Fuego, boasts with this tongue-twisting word. Mamihlapinatapai was listed as the most succinct word by The Guinness book of world records and is considered one of the most difficult words to translate.
Essentially, mamihlapinatapai means “a look shared by two people who want the same thing but neither wants to be the initiator and are hoping the other person will take the first step”. It can also be used to describe a deeply private or intimate look between people that is full of unspoken understanding. The next time you encounter a silence full of meaning, mamihlapinatapai might just be the right word to describe the moment.
Have you ever tried to make things better but actually made the situation worse? Ever had your honest effort to fix something turn out to be the last thing the situation needs? Well, that’s what verschlimmbessern means.
This compound comes from “verschlimmern” which means “to make things worse” and “verbessern” which means “to make things better” or “improve”. Which brings us to...
Your hair is overgrown, and some grooming is overdue. You decide to have a haircut, only to realize that the haircut made everything worse. This is what age-otori is - “to look worse after a haircut”. Although this word is not in common use nowadays in Japan, be sure to remember it for your next visit to the hairdresser just for good luck.
Sobremesa is another succinct word that carries a layered meaning. In Spanish, sobremesa represents the post-meal conversation shared with friends and family, the overall cozy atmosphere.
Gezelligheid might be as close to the heart of Dutch culture as saudade is part of Portuguese. Coziness, friendly and familiar atmosphere - gezelligheid is all of this and more.
The root of the word is gezel, which means “friend” or “companion”. Although it usually describe a social, pleasant atmosphere, it can also describe a place, a person or an activity. Ultimately, gezelligheid is a sense of togetherness.
A direct translation of “aranyhíd” would be “golden bridge”. In fact, aranyhíd describes the glistening reflection of the rising or setting sun on a body of water. This “sunshine bridge” is usually a "connection" of two banks of a river.
Interestingly, the Hungarian language also has a word for the reflection of the moon on water and you guessed it - it’s the “silver bridge” - “ezüsthíd”.
The magic of "untranslatable" words
Every language has signature, unique words that are often a reflection of the culture, customs, and people who speak it. That cluster of meaning can be transferred greatly with a good translation and excellent localization.
We hope you enjoyed this linguistic trip around the world. Stay tuned for more!