« Back to all posts

Lost in Translation: Our Favorite Words that Don’t Translate into English

Lost in Translation: Our favorite words that don't translate into English

The English language is pretty comprehensive, but sometimes there are feelings and ideas that we can’t quite put into words in one language. That’s a great time to turn to another language to express yourself.

Our Venga team has gathered some of their favorite untranslatable words from their languages, so you can find the perfect word next time.

Republic

Nadia – Czech

There are quite a few Czech words that lack an English equivalent and also provide an insight into Czech culture. Here are two examples that might help you describe your outdoorsy friends:

Chatař: the root of the word is chata, a cottage. A chatař is an owner of a cottage and someone who is part of an overall outdoor lifestyle. Many Czech people have cottages by forests or lakes outside of cities. It’s even normal for residents who live in apartments to have small gardens outside of the city where they spend weekends gardening, walking their dogs, picking mushrooms, and hiking or biking. A chatař is someone who embraces this typically Czech lifestyle. Have a stroll through residential areas of Prague over the weekend and you’ll find that many of the locals have left the city behind, preferring to spend their free time in nature.

Otužilec: a person who is immune to cold weather. A fairly common practice in rural areas of the Czech Republic is to submerge oneself in cold water, often by digging holes in frozen lakes or swimming in ice-cold water for a short period of time. It is believed that exposing your body to cold temperatures in short increments is good for health and improves overall immunity. So your one friend that never seems to need a winter coat might be an otužilec!

Germany

Nadine – German

The German language lends itself easily to building new words, and so there are quite a few German words that we’ve created to refer to very specific feelings. Many people are familiar with Schadenfreude (happiness at someone else’s misery), but there are more!

If everyone has left the house and you have the place to yourself, that’s sturmfrei.

If a song is stuck in your head and you keep thinking about it all the time, that’s an Ohrwurm (literally, ear worm).

Verschlimmbessern describes the act of trying to make something better but actually just making it worse.

Zugzwang is feeling forced to make a decision, and Erklärungsnot is having a hard time explaining yourself.

And while we do have a phrase in English for the feeling of missing out on things, FOMO, the German word Torschlusspanik is a little more specific. Literally, it means “gate-shut panic,” but we use it to describe the feeling of getting too old to do things or a fear that time is running out.

English speakers refer to spending the day in front of the TV as being a couch potato, but the Germans describe the part of us that wants to be lazy and not do something as the innerer Schweinehund. Literally, it means “inner pig dog,” two animals that seem quite comfortable spending their days doing nothing.

A keyword for 2018, perhaps: fremdschämen, feeling embarrassed because of things other people are doing. You might also pair this feeling with the word Schapsidee (literally, “schnaps idea”), if you’re watching someone’s silly idea cause them embarrassment.

And to end on a good note, here’s a hopeful word: Vorfreude. If you are excited about something that will happen in the future–more untranslatable words, perhaps?–use Vorfreude to describe your “pre-joy”.

Words that don't translate, Japanese

Kohta – Japanese

お疲れさま (Otsukaresama)
It literally means “you are tired” but that is not its real meaning. It has many meanings and it is usually used with your colleagues. One of the most frequently used contexts is that you say it when you meet your colleague, meaning “hello”.
Another one is that you use it when you say goodbye to your colleague, meaning “have a good evening” or “have a nice weekend”. “Hello” and “goodbye” are opposites but we use “Otsukaresama” both ways.
We also use it to your colleague when the person finishes some work such as a speech, presentation, or project, meaning “great job”.
よろしくお願いします (Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu)
This has also many meanings and is used in business contexts or formal situations. One of the most frequently used situations is in an email. You use “Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu” at the end of the message, meaning something similar to “Best regards” or “Thank you in advance” if you request something from the other person.
Also, you can use it as “nice to meet you” when you meet someone (such as your colleague, boss, client) for the first time or you can use it as “nice meeting you” as when you say goodbye to the person.

Italy

Raf – Italian

When a sight hits your eye that’s so majestic you cry, that’s mozzafiato. It’s like the English word “breathtaking,” and literally means “to chop off one’s breath.”

It seems that most cultures have a phrase to describe our inner couch potato-ness, and Italian is no different. The Italian word sounds more comfy, though: a pantofolaio is someone who sits at home wearing slippers.

On a day where you’re being a pantofolaio, you might want a word to describe the way you can’t be bothered to care about anything. Italians use menefreghismo, from the phrase “me ne frego,” or “I don’t give a damn.” According to The Smiling Eggplant, “me ne frego” was a common refrain of the Fascists, but Italians have recuperated it to describe a state of not caring about anything. It’s a word equally as adaptable for a pantofolaio day or a “Gone With the Wind” party.

China

Luna – Chinese

One phrase that’s used in English but doesn’t translate easily is “Feng shui (Simplified: 风水; Traditional: 風水)” which is a superstition in China. This system has origins in ancient China (more than 2,000 years ago) and we cannot really find an equivalence in English because of its complicated cultural meanings. Feng shui claims to use “energy forces to harmonize individuals with their surrounding environment” (source) and is still being used in architecture nowadays.

Poland

Ella – Polish

The Polish verb kombinować is a really useful term that doesn’t have a good single translation. It’s easily translated in context, but has numerous possible descriptions in other languages, so it can’t be generally translated.

It’s a catch-all term for a range of activities that, in colloquial language, include problem-solving and finding solutions, often involving the circumnavigation of laws, rules, or normal procedures. Where in English you might use wangle, botch, fiddle, swindle, manipulate, cook, plot, rig, fix, doctor, hoax, con, finagle, dodge or even invent, in Polish you would just say kombinować.

This word is very popular in Poland–I’d even say it has a cultural significance. We often use this word to say that we are trying to figure out how to make our life or our job easier. And when using this particular word, we might sometimes be implying that we are not planning on fully following the rules, but instead trying to figure out how to slightly bend them.

For example, when a teacher or a parent hears a child trying to make up an intricate excuse (such as a more sophisticated version of “the dog ate my homework”) they would often say “Nie kombinuj!” meaning “Stop making it up! In Polish, though, it’s less of an accusation and more of an acknowledgement (“I know you’re making it up, stop trying to wiggle your way out if it and just tell me the truth”).

The word itself stems from Communist times in Poland, when you had to kombinować a lot in order to get things. You couldn’t just go to the shop and buy something, you had to figure out a way of obtaining the things you wanted – via barter exchange with other people, by asking favors from people who owe you, or by trying to make friends with people who had access to things. Kombinowanie can have this gray undertone, but it was the norm back in the days and it’s still present in our day-to-day lives, though with a far less pejorative meaning to it than in the past.

Sweden

Linda – Swedish

Translation is not just about replacing a word with another in a different language, and the Swedish word “lagom” is a great example. A dictionary might define it as “enough, sufficient, adequate, just right,” or compare it to “in moderation,” “in balance,” “perfect-simple,” or “suitable.”

However, none of these suggestions are picture-perfect and for a Swede it can be rather tricky to carry it over in one word. In fact, the word “Lagom,” most often used as an adverb, can be heard in all sorts of situations and has the meaning of correctness, although not necessarily faultlessness. The common expression “lagom är bäst,” which in English would be something like “the right amount is best,” is widely used. It may be true that “Lagom” describes what is known as the national essence of being a Swede; to live in consensus and believe in equality. Historically known to the world as being moderate, many Swedes still think it’s noble to avoid extravagances.

The term stems from lag (“law”), referring not to judicial law but to common-sense law. Another popular, although probably anecdotal, explanation is the belief that it is a contraction of “laget om” (“around the team”) used by the Vikings to agree on how to share the mead as it was passed around the table in order for everyone to receive their fair share. True or not, Swedes love to tell that story to the world.

If you enjoyed this post, check out How to Kiss the Air and Other Useful Tips for Traveling to Spain on Business or How to Wish Your International Colleagues Good Health (Without Offense).

Our experts at Venga can help you create a translation that captures the right feeling and the literal meaning. To find out how we can translate your content, visit our website or request a free quote.

Localization in an agile environment