I’ve always been a die-hard fan of words and how they can express such rich emotions. It’s a beautiful thing if you know how to use the words in the right way.
I remember the first time I heard the Portuguese word “Saudade”. I could immediately feel it in my body, this pull of longing that hit me right in the gut. The beauty of the word to express such a specific emotion intrigued me. As a lover of words, I wanted to know what other words are out there that can express something so beautiful so succinctly.
If you think about it, language is a series of sounds that come together to express a thought or a feeling but when you take a deeper look, you’ll come to find that language is so much more than words. Language is an expression of thoughts and ideas, specifically linked to the culture of the people speaking it.
Language gives you a peek into a culture’s way of thinking. To see what is unique about a culture, look at the words you can’t directly translate from it without a long explanation. These untranslatable words allow you to directly peer into the soul of a culture or a people.
I went down the rabbit hole of untranslatable words exploring words from different languages that resist direct translation and picked my favourites that I feel express something unique about the culture of its people.
Embark on a linguistic journey as I explore 30 untranslatable words that evoke unique emotions, capture specific cultural concepts, or convey profound sentiments that the English language struggles to encapsulate with a single word. Get ready to delve into the intricacies of language and uncover the beauty of untranslatable expressions.
Aware – Japanese
Picture yourself enjoying a perfect moment, while knowing that the moment is already fading into a memory. The bittersweet feeling of enjoying a moment while knowing it’ll soon be gone is what the Japanese refer to as aware.
Iktsuarpok – Inuit
You know that anxious feeling you get while waiting for someone to come meet you, how you keep looking at your phone for a message from them, or out the window to see if they’re walking down the street? The Inuit language uses the word Iktsuarpok to sum up this feeling of anticipation and the impatience and frustration that builds while waiting for someone to show up.
Toska – Russian
Russians are known to be a particularly melancholic people and one of their famously untranslatable words is a clear show of just that. Toska is a Russian word that means yearning or ennui, but it's so much more than that because no English word can reflect all the shades of the word. According to the Russian-American author of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, toska is better described as “a sensation of great spiritual anguish, lacking any specific cause.”
Voorpret – Dutch
Imagine you’re planning a big trip abroad. You buy a couple of guidebooks, comb through Culture Trip to decide what to do once you get to your destination, and map out your future journey. The joy you’re feeling in that moment is what the Dutch would call voorpret, which is fun you experience in anticipation of an event.
Tartle – Scottish
Tartle is a Scottish word that proves that Scottish is its own language, separate from the English language. Picture this, you’re at a party and come across an acquaintance whose name you can’t remember. Now imagine you’re with a friend and have to introduce said acquaintance, whose name you can’t remember, to your friend. That hesitation you feel before you introduce them because you can’t remember someone’s name is called a tartle.
Ilunga – Tshiluba (Southwest Congo)
This word is probably one of the most specifically defined words on this list. It’s a testament to just how much meaning you can put into one word. It’s a word from the Republic of Congo and its specific definition is best said by linguist Christopher Moore who wrote a book on intriguing words from around the world. “It describes a person who is ready to forgive any transgression a first time and then to tolerate it for a second time, but never for a third time.” Trying to find an exact translation for such a uniquely specific word is definitely a challenge.
Ya’aburnee – Arabic
The direct translation of this phrase can seem quite morbid but it’s in fact an expression of love. It translates to “you bury me” but the phrase expresses a hope that you will die and be buried first because you can’t live without the other.
Schnapsidee – German
Have you ever been at a table full of people drinking and exchanging what they think are “amazing ideas" while they’re under the influence? Or maybe you’ve even come up with your own brilliant ideas after one too many drinks that don’t sound too good once the beer goggles come off? Schnapsidee is a German word that refers to these not-so-brilliant ideas and plans that you come up with while intoxicated.
Abbiocco – Italian
Otherwise known as a “food coma” in English, the Italian word abbiocco refers to the content drowsiness that comes after eating a big meal. This phrase reveals just how important food is in the Italian culture that they have a word to express the feeling of sleepy content following a satisfying meal.
Löyly – Finnish
Finland is a country of five million people and three million saunas. It’s only fitting that a country that places such an emphasis on this pastime has a set of vocabulary dedicated to it. The literal translation of Löyly refers to the enveloping of steam that surrounds you in the sauna when water is poured on the hot rocks. On a deeper level, the term refers to the soul of the sauna.
Sobremesa – Spanish
You might have witnessed this ritual, or even took part in it unknowingly, at the end of a long afternoon, sitting around the table enjoying post-lunch drinks with friends, family, or colleagues. The Spanish word Sobremesa refers to that time frame after having a meal when food gives way to hours of talking, drinking and joking. It’s the digestive period that allows for the slow settling of food and conversations.
Feierabend – German
Anyone who has ever tried to call a German office after hours will be met with deafening silence as the Germans, while hard workers, also value their time off. Feierabend, which translates to “celebration evening” is a term that dates back to the 16th century and used to refer to the evening before a public holiday. In recent times though, it has come to refer to the free time between leaving the office and going to bed on a working day. Feierabend specifically refers to time doing nothing though. The cultural historian Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl described the concept as “an atmosphere of carefree wellbeing, of deep inner reconciliation, of the pure and clear quiet of the evening”.
Wabi-Sabi – Japanese
Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese word used to describe the beauty in imperfection. It’s not just a word but rather a philosophy tied to the idea of Kintsugi, which is the Japanese art of repairing broken things with gold lacquer. It’s a beautiful reminder that everything is beautiful just as it is.
Sisu – Finnish
Have you ever had a difficult experience that you persevered through with resilience and determination? That’s what the Finnish would call sisu. This untranslatable word blends resilience, tenacity, persistence, perseverance and sustained courage. It refers to the psychological strength to ensure that regardless of the cost or the consequences, what has to be done, will be done.
Shouganai – Japanese
The Japanese have fallen victim to many situations beyond their control, from natural disasters to human-imposed catastrophes, and in many of these situations, you can hear Japanese whispering the phrase Shouganai amongst each other. This untranslatable Japanese word is a typical reaction to situations where you have no control or influence. The expression means “it can’t be helped”, similar to the English phrase “it is what it is”. With its roots in the Zen Buddhist belief that suffering is a natural part of life, it aims to express the recognition that sometimes acceptance of an unfortunate situation is much easier than denying it.
Saudade – Portuguese
The expression that kick-started this interest in untranslatable words for me, Saudade is a Portuguese word for a beautiful, bitter-sweet longing for something that doesn’t exist. It could be something that you have experienced in the past or something that may have never happened at all. Portuguese speakers around the globe though will insist that it’s not nostalgia or bitter-sweetness as English speakers have tried to explain. There is no English equivalent that can express the full meaning of this word. Writer Manuel de Melo poetically describes it as “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.”
Desenrascanço – Portuguese
This literal meaning of the word desenrascanço is “disentanglement” but Portuguese speakers use it to describe finding an unusual or unexpected solution to a problem, serendipitously finding a way out of a challenge or problem.
Fernweh – German
Some might liken this German word to wanderlust but it’s the subtle difference that gives this word its essence. While wanderlust refers to a desire to travel, Fernweh, literally translates to “far-sickness” and refers to “home-sickness” and deep longing for distant places that you’ve never been to. Similar and yet vastly different to wanderlust.
Hygge – Danish
Of all the words on this list, I think this one is probably the most popular in the English-speaking world with Denmark marketing it as their nation’s defining characteristic. Hygge literally translates into the pleasant, genial, and intimate feeling associated with sitting around a fire in the winter with close friends. However, that feeling can be felt beyond moments spent around a fire with friends. Hygge combines all the feelings of cosiness, comfort, and contentment that you could feel, alone or with friends, into one word.
Meraki – Greek
You know the feeling of pouring your heart and soul into something you’re doing, leaving a piece of yourself in it. The Greeks call this meraki. Meraki can extend into so many things, including cooking with meraki, painting with meraki, building with meraki, writing with meraki. Whatever your craft is, chances are, if you’re passionately invested in it, you’re doing it with meraki.
Yaani – Arabic
As a native Arabic speaker, trying to translate this word to English speakers always eluded me when I was younger. The direct translation is “I mean” but the way this word is used amongst Arabic speakers goes beyond that. It could be used as a filler in conversation as they try to find the right words to express themselves, in the same way as “like”, “you know”, “umm” or even, “I mean”. It can also be used according to its meaning, like when you’re telling someone what something means.
Gigil – Tagalog (Philippines)
I love this word because I think it truly embodies the spirit of the Philippines. This word translates into the feeling of joy and the overwhelming sense of happiness that comes from being around something irresistibly cute. Having spent a lot of time with people from the Philippines, I think this word showcases the joyful way that they look at life, to have a word that specifically describes the feelings we get from cute things. That it’s phonetically similar to the English word giggle is just a bonus.
Kefi – Greek
Kefi is a fairly modern word that has recently been added to the Greek vocabulary following what has been an economically turbulent period of time. Kefi is the art of being in good spirits even when times are tough. Find joy within and enjoy life regardless of what is going on around you.
Yuánfèn – Mandarin
This word refers to the serendipity and destiny that brings people together in pre-destined love. The Japanese have a direct equivalent in the expression “Koi No Yokan” which describes the feeling you get when you meet someone for the first time and know you’re going to fall in love.
Tsundoku – Japanese
There are people who love to read and people who love to buy books. I belong to the latter group and funnily enough, this specific term from Japan describes this hoarding of books, left unread. Good to know I’m not the only one.
Treppenwitz – German
Have you ever had a conversation with someone and thought of a comeback to whatever they were saying after the conversation has ended? The German language has a word to describe this far too familiar feeling, treppenwitz. The direct translation of treppenwitz is “staircase joke” because you thought of your comeback on the stairs on your way out. The French have their own idiomatic expression for this, calling it “l’esprit de l’escalier”, the literal translation of which is “stairwell wit”.
Dépaysement – French
This French word describes the combined feeling of disorientation and euphoria you get from not being somewhere new and unknown, terrifying and exciting all at once. Many travellers have probably felt this feeling as they try to figure out how to get around a new city they just landed in.
Hiraeth – Welsh
Hiraeth is a Welsh word that describes a longing, or homesickness, for a place that you can’t return to or a place that doesn’t exist. It’s a combination of longing, nostalgia and yearning and the feeling doesn’t necessarily go away when you go home as the place isn’t what it used to be.
Verschlimmbessern – German
If I was German, I would probably be using this word a lot. Verschlimmbessen is a compound word that combines the German word to improve with the German word to make something worse. In their combination, they have created a new phrase that means to try to fix something but accidentally make it worse, like when you add too much salt to a bland dish and inadvertently make it too salty.
Cafune – Brazilian Portuguese
This Brazilian Portuguese word in English means to tenderly caress or run your fingers through the hair of someone you love. While it literally translates into a caress, its meaning is much deeper as it represents the affection and tenderness and calming force that people can be for each other. When words fail, cafune rises to the occasion.
The Final Word
As a lover of language and words, embracing the diverse vocabulary of different cultures allows me to deeply understand the range of experiences and emotions that colour a culture or a nation.
The English vocabulary, while vast, cannot do justice to the diversity and richness of all the languages on earth and we shouldn’t ask that of one language. Instead, we should embrace the range of beautiful words that exist across the world, and even adopt some of them, to help us externalise and express some of our feelings and our very specific emotions. For the feelings that have no English words to express, we can turn to the range of foreign words and expressions that we have just covered above.
As language learners and professional translators, embracing the diversity of languages and the variety of unique words that exist in each native language allows us to better integrate the expression of cultural differences into our work.
By exploring the untranslatable, we bridge the gaps between cultures, enhance our linguistic understanding, and gain a deeper appreciation for the richness of human expression across the globe.