Peak Translations

‘The Untranslatables’

No entry sign with The Untranslatables text insideAren’t languages fascinating with their wide spectrum of incredible sounding words and intriguing concepts? And how wonderful is it that we get to understand these words from all around the world either from learning languages ourselves or with the assistance of a translator who helps these words cross those many cultural barriers. However, what about the words that have no exact translation and are more a way of life and very much ingrained within a certain culture? Meet ‘The Untranslatables’, a myriad of words from around the globe that are as tough as the crew in the 1980s film ‘The Untouchables’! So how do you combat the translation of this mob of words that are untranslatable? What can be done to overcome this barrier if a text includes very locally cultural words, which have no parallel? “Who you gonna call?” … why the ‘The Professional Translator’ and ‘The Localiser’, of course! These professionals convey these specific cultural nuances through various tools of adaptation and description that offer the word in the form of a concept rather than an exact correlation by localising the text to the target country language and culture, choosing a word or phrase that will best fit within the context of the sentence and be understood by locals.


So are you ready to meet some ‘Untranslatables’ from across the globe?


‘The Brit’
British flag against a blue sky backdrop

Trade-off – Ever find yourself in a situation where you must accept something that isn’t as good or you do not like or want it, in exchange for something good or something that you want? In the UK, this is a ‘trade off’!


‘The Scot’Celtic Cross against backdrop of green foliage

Tartle – Ever been in a situation where you meet someone you know at a party and want to introduce them to your other half but you’re having difficulty remembering their name and there’s that awkward hesitation? There is actually a Scottish verb for this!


The WelshClose up of bright yellow daffodilsHiraeth – (“here-eyeth” (roll the “r”) We all know what homesickness is and feels like, and the closest translation of this Welsh word is as such, however, it is so much more than that. It instils a deeper longing for your ‘spiritual home’, language, culture and land and that strong bond that you feel with your home country. It is like a mix of homesickness blended with a nostalgic wistfulness and yearning.


The Finn
The northern lights in a freezing March night in Ylläsjarvi, a small village in the Finnish LaplandKalsarikänni – The weather can be particularly harsh in Finland and a lifestyle that has emerged from this country to combat not going out in these sub-zero temperatures is one that involves drinking at home alone in your underwear! The anglicised version has become Päntsdrunk!


The Spaniard
Chilled bottle of Navarra Las Campanas Garnacha rosado with a glass of the rosado next to it on a table

– If you’ve ever visited Spain then you will have consciously or unconsciously been privy to this Spanish ritual. Lunchtime in this Hispanic country is more than just a quick salad or sandwich on the hoof or sat at a desk. It is a languid stretch of an afternoon where the meal takes its time to digest and this digestive period is whiled away over several hours allowing for chat, banter, tossing ideas around intermingled with a few drinks in the form of digestivos and/or coffee. It suggests that this hedonistic occasion acknowledges that there is more to life than long working hours and life is too short to not enjoy these pleasures of sharing time with colleagues, friends and family over a long lunch filled with leisurely conversation!


The German
Brandenburg Gate at sunset
Torschlusspanik – ‘What have I been doing with my life?’ There are times when we have all felt anxious, where we think we’ve missed the boat and we feel that overwhelming sense that the door is closing in on those potential opportunities; so much to do and so little time! This is what this German word, Torschlusspanik, describes; that fear that time is running out as we get older and we’ve let life slip away, hence its literal translation, gate-closing-panic.


The Dutch
Bouquets of tulips at a flower market in Amsterdam

Gezellig / Gezelligheid (he-sell-ick) – This is a word very close to the Dutch people’s heart and encompasses the Dutch culture. It is used in situations, as well as for places and people; so for instance, a Dutch person might describe their sunset walk along the river with their partner, or an evening out with friends in one of their favourite restaurants, as ‘gezellig’, giving the impression of something that has a real feel-good vibe, or something that is familiar, warm, friendly, cosy, and jovial. It also bears the connotation of an enjoyable time spent with loved ones, seeing a friend after a long absence, or just a general togetherness. Not only is it a challenging word to translate, but its pronunciation can also trip you up!  Not far off the Danish word ‘Hygge’


The Dane
Hans Christian Anderson Statue

Hygge (pronounced hoo-gah)/Hyggelig – Like the Dutch word Gezellig / Gezelligheid, this Danish word refers to that concept of cosy contentment evoking an image of a warm, friendly and intimate moment or thing. Imagine a candlelit winter evening at home with warm blankets and a glass of wine. However, it is also so much more than this cosy feeling, it also encapsulates that perception of a safe haven where you feel at home, meaning that to hyggelit, you would do so with people you know well and feel free to be yourself, such as with old friends, close family and work colleagues with whom you feel most comfortable. This unique Danish word has since ensconced itself into the UK workspace; apparently to ‘hygge at work’ means to create a warm ambience in the form of decorating your workspace with a little piece of home such as a family photo in a frame, or drinking tea or coffee out of one of your favourite mugs brought from home. Likewise baking some cupcakes and sharing them with colleagues over a coffee break chatting about life outside of work and above all embracing the spirit of teamwork. “A hygge lifestyle is not about perfection but about slowing down to truly enjoy and be content in even the smallest of moments.”


‘The French
Eiffel Tower with cityscape

Flâner – You know that sense of wandering the streets aimlessly, meandering with no particular destination or goal in mind? The Parisians have a word for this leisurely stroll around the streets of Paris with not a care in the world, simply taking in the city’s atmosphere and beauty. These meandering amblers would be referred to as ‘flâneurs’.


The Russian
Saint Basil's Cathedral at night time

тоска (toska) (pronounced tahs-kah) – This melancholic word is so much more than a word, it is an intense feeling. It has been likened to a yearning or melancholia; however, this word has several shades of colour, embracing a deeper layer of spiritual anguish and nostalgia, intermingled with a touch of depression and longing, as well as that hankering feeling of needing to escape something so much but not having the energy or hope to do so. But do not despair because this word also has a less morbid use where it reflects a dull ache of the soul and a love sickness. Not surprising that this word is often found in Russian literature with its different tiers of emotional pain!


The Arab
Arab leading a camel in the Sahara Desert in the day time

Ya’aburnee – At some time or another we will all have experienced and will experience grief of a loved one. This Arabic word is used to express a wish to outlive your loved ones to spare yourself the unbearable pain and grief you’d have to face living without them.  It literally means “you bury me,” and is a common term of endearment used by parents to their children expressing their desire to die before them, rather than live without them.


The Italian
View of Duomo in Florence with Tuscan hills in background

Gattara – If you’re a fan of The Simpsons then you will know about the character the Crazy Cat Lady. This Italian word encompasses this description, often referring to an old and lonely lady who spends a lot of time with stray cats.


The Czech’ and ‘The Slovak
View of lots of people walking on Charles Bridge against a backdrop of buildings in PragueStreet view with old buildings in Bratislava

Prezvonit – Have you ever had that agreement with a friend or family member that if you call their mobile phone and ring off after one ring, that it would indicate to them that you’d run out of data or credit and you would need them to call you back? Prezvonit describes this whole scenario in just one word!


The Greek
Sunset view of white houses in Santorini

Filotimo – Without a beating heart we could not live. This is apparently how deep a meaning this Greek word portrays. No Greek is a real Greek if they are not Filotimo. Literally meaning a friend who demonstrates honour and dignity, they also need to demonstrate sacrifice, pride and respect.  According to the philosopher Thales, “Filotimo to the Greek is like breathing. A Greek is not a Greek without it. He might as well not be alive.”


These few ‘Untranslatables’ are just a small drop in the ocean, with many more that grace our beautiful world of languages and with the best will in the world, no matter the skill of the translator, sometimes these words can just be ‘Lost in Translation’!


By Madeline Prusmann, Project Manager, December 2018




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