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10 Words that are Difficult to Translate into English

Updated on April 2, 2013

All languages have words that can be problematic when it comes to translating across cultures, and it is often these that are so interesting to study, as they present ideas and concepts that are seemingly impossible to encapsulate with one succinct term. Here are ten foreign expressions, the meanings of which seem to exist only in cluttered, lengthy descriptions throughout the English-speaking world:

  • Jayus: This is an Indonesian word referring to a joke that is either so terrible or so poorly told, that it cannot help but elicit laughter from the hearer.

  • Mamihlapinatapei: It looks long and daunting, but has a truly interesting meaning. From Yagan, the Indigenous language of the Tierra del Fuego region of South America, this lengthy word describes the look that occurs between two people when they both desire something to happen, but are reluctant to initiate the thing that they desire.

  • Ilunga: This refers to a person who is willing to forgive a first wrong and to tolerate a second, but never a third. It comes from Tshiluba (a Bantu language), spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

  • Pochemuchka: The very act of asking for this word’s meaning might render you worthy of falling under its description, as it’s Russian for a person who asks a lot of questions.

  • Desenrascanço: This Portuguese word refers to the art of using any available means to extract yourself, seemingly impossibly, from an undesirable situation.

  • Mokita: From the New Guinean Kivila language, this means a truth that is known by everyone but failed to be spoken by anyone. It should definitely wend its way into the English language.

  • Hygge: Danish for a complete absence of anything annoying and the presence of soothing things. Something we could all benefit from.

  • Saudade: Carrying quite a beautiful meaning, this word is Portuguese for the longing sensation that is felt for a loved, but lost, person or thing.

  • Tartle: We’ve all experienced this feeling, but English sadly lacks a succinct word with which to describe it. Tartle is Scottish for the act of hesitating when introducing someone, due to having forgotten their name.

  • Forelsket: This is the Norwegian description of the euphoria experienced when first falling in love.

With such intricate, often subtle meanings, it becomes easy to see why the act of translation is incredibly difficult, especially with words such as these. It is for this reason that foreign words are often adopted into the English language as loanwords, either evolving into Anglicised formats, or remaining in their original states in order to provide an explanation for a formerly inexplicable (at least in a succinct manner) concept.

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    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      5 years ago from SW England

      Great variety of words! Translation is a minfield sometimes; we have to make sure we get it right or trouble can ensue! I love the word 'tartle'; it sounds very Scottish too. I must remember that one next time I speak to my cousin's wife who comes from Edinburgh!

      English is rich in words that mean something similar but have slightly different nuances; some of those are difficult to translate into other languages such as French.

      Up and interesting.


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