Untranslatable words: simply one of a kind

Hygge is likely one of the best-known contemporary examples of words that cannot be directly translated with a single word. These words are considered untranslatable, because they simply do not exist in the other language. By the way, the Danish principle of hygge has since made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary, so it is no longer necessary to explain the term as, for instance, cosy and comfortable conviviality.

Some expressions from other languages are a more of a challenge for translators, however. They require a very high level of understanding of not only the source language, but also the other culture. Many of these terms are so beautifully poetic that you would prefer to just leave them as they are, because they perfectly encapsulate concepts for which there is no fitting word in the target language. By contrast, there are also some terms that only exist in English – more on that later.

Here are a few wonderful words from around the globe that have no equivalent in many other languages:


Yakamoz – for romantics and moon worshippers

The vivid definition of the Turkish word yakamoz is ‘the reflection of the moon on the water’. In 2007 – the ‘year of the humanities’ of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research – it was even named the most beautiful word in the world. The Swedes, too, can summarise this poetic natural phenomenon in one single word: mångata. In English translations, however, an explanation or a phrase is required to express this idea.

Fredagsmys – suits off, and into the weekend

This Swedish word is literally translated as Friday cosiness. The term represents a feeling of security, togetherness and relaxation – sitting together in a cosy environment at home with your family or friends, with a glass of wine and some tasty snacks. Even if there’s no name for this feeling in English, children of the 1980s in particular know this feeling as sitting and watching a film with family on a Saturday evening, fresh from the bath and with a bag of chocolate snacks.

Uitwaaien – let your troubles fade away

This adorable term from Dutch can be literally translated to mean ‘to deflate’ – and now you might already get it without speaking the language. What is meant is to take a break to clear your head. Something that is easily done on holiday on the Dutch coast: lekker uitwaaien aan zee en lange strandwandelingen maken.

Jugaad – just great!

This term comes from Hindi and essentially means to be able to improvise or the ability to find solutions under difficult conditions. Jugaad thus describes the lifestyle of many Indians that enables them, in spite of somewhat difficult circumstances – two-thirds of the country lives in poverty – to maintain their positive attitude towards life. The particularly noteworthy aspect is that the lacking is not what shapes the attitude; instead, the lacking, or limitation, is seen as an opportunity. This important nuance should definitely be accounted for as part of a good translation.

Mamihlapinatapai – that leaves us speechless

Impossible to pronounce and, depending on the context, romantically tragic beyond belief: mamihlapinatapai. The complicated translation of the word is as follows: Two people cast (longing) glances at one another, both hoping that the other takes the initiative – but neither of them is able to muster up the courage. This term that describes how two people can be quite literally speechless originally comes from the language of the Yaghan, the indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego. This language, unfortunately, has more or less died out. But mamihlapinatapai has made its way into the Guinness Book of World Records as the ‘most succinct word’.

Pochemuchka – but why?

You surely know someone who always wants to know everything down to the last detail. In Russian, you would call this person pochemuchka, followed by either a wink or a roll of your eyes, depending on your mood at that moment. In an English translation, this noun could be replaced by a combination of adverb and adjective: ‘especially curious’. Sometimes, when you encounter an untranslatable word, you’re better served by changing the part of speech.

Cercle vertueux – things are just going your way

Every once in a while, you might say to yourself: ‘Damn, how do I put an end to this vicious circle?’ Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to simply make the switch to the French term cercle vertueux – literally translated, the word means ‘virtuous circle’ and refers to a time during which everything runs smoothly, with good things followed by good things. So the opposite of a vicious circle. We also have this term in English – ‘virtuous circle’ is in the Oxford English Dictionary – but it remains difficult to translate into other languages.

Fernweh – looking for a getaway

It would seem that the Germans are the only people plagued by a longing travel to a faraway place. At least there is no direct translation for this idea in other languages. Many languages are, however, familiar with the longing for home: homesickness. And a related sentiment: the French use the term dépaysment to describe the feeling you have when you no longer live in your home country or region and you feel foreign in the place you live.

While we’re at it, there are a few more German words that are considered untranslatable and have thus entered the English lexicon: Weltschmerz, zeitgeist, schadenfreude – all of which can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Ilunga – it’s about to get complicated

These six letters will make just about any translator start to sweat. This word, which comes from the Bantu languages of East Africa, can be described as follows: a person who forgives an injury or insult the first time, and even endures and tolerates a second instance, but for whom the third time is just too much – and this third insult or injury is neither endured nor forgiven.

Gluggavedur – from a safe distance

This word comes from Icelandic and literally means ‘window weather’. What it really means is weather which is nice to look at through a window, but which is unpleasant to be exposed to or go out in. You might think of countless raindrops making their way down the windowpane, impressive lightning strikes in the sky or a blizzard-like snowfall. One synonym could be ‘stay-under-the-blanket weather’ – a concept not all that foreign to us.

Nadja Plaßmann

Nadja mag Kurzgeschichten und lange Spaziergänge. Sie schlägt gern Wurzeln und wünscht sich manchmal Flügel. Seit 2006 korrigiert und lektoriert sie bei Wieners und Wieners fremde Texte und verfasst wunderbare eigene.