Skip to content

Best of ‘untranslatable’ words part 1

There are a lot of these lists of ‘untranslatable’ words on the internet. Of course, it’s not that they are untranslatable, simply that there is no precise (i.e. one-word-long) equivalent in English, hence their charm – they seem to compress an entire perspective on life, or at least an astute sociological analysis, into a few syllables.

Here are some of my favorites:

  • Mamihlapinatapei
(Yagan) (indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego) – the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.
  • Iktsuarpok
(Inuit) – to go outside to check if anyone is coming.
  • Gumusservi
(Turkish) – 
moonlight shining on water.
  • Litost
(Czech) – “As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it.” (Milan Kundera) The closest definition is a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.
  • Vybafnout
(Czech) – 
to jump out and say boo.
  • Tartle
(Scottish) – the act of hesitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name.
  • Ilunga
(Tshiluba) (Southwest Congo) – a person “who is ready to forgive and forget any first abuse, tolerate it the second time, but never forgive nor tolerate on the third offense.”
  • Cafuné
(Brazilian Portuguese) – the act of tenderly running one’s fingers through someone’s hair.
  • Saudade
(Portuguese) – an old favourite, “the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost.”
  • Ya’aburnee
(Arabic) – this incantatory word means, literally, “you bury me,” a declaration of one’s hope that the person in question will die before you, because it would be unbearable to live without them.
  • Torschlusspanik
(German) – translated literally, this word means “gate-closing panic,” but its contextual meaning refers to “the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages.”
  • Drachenfutter
(German) – [DRACH-ern-FOOT-er] while this word literally means “dragon fodder,” it refers to a type of gift German husbands bestow on their wives “when they’ve stayed out late or they have otherwise engaged in some kind of inappropriate behavior.”

See part 2 for more of the best of ‘untranslatable’ words!

Related Posts