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Untranslatable Words, Translated

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by John Burns (subscribe)
I am a writer and teacher, out and about in the world but with Nottingham never far from my heart.
Published October 23rd 2014
At a loss for words? Maybe some of these will help
American writer Theodore Dreiser – no stranger to beautiful linguistic flourishes himself – was only too aware of the inadequacy of language to express what we really want to say. "Words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean," he said. "Little audible links, they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes."

Of course language is a human construct, and so will always fall somewhat short when applied to the beauty and majesty of nature, but by viewing language as global-whole we can inch a little closer to creating a more evocative picture of the world around us.

Anyone who has travelled in a foreign country will understand the difficulties that lie in translation and in understanding what is being communicated to you. But what about the words that are unique to that language; the words whose meanings cannot be expressed quite so elegantly in other tongues?

Below are just a few examples of some such words, each accompanied by a clunky English translation. There are many more, I'm sure. Let us know about any that you have encountered on your travels!


Mangata is a fittingly elegant Swedish word for a beautiful natural phenomenon. You know how – on moonlit nights – the moon casts a trail of light across bodies of water? That's a mangata.
untranslatable words, travel, exploration, adventure

The word is formed by joining the Swedish words 'man', meaning moon, and 'gata', which translates as road. At least next time your taking an evening stroll by a lake, that beguiling 'moonroad' won't leave you lost for words.


untranslatable words, travel, exploration, adventure

Another captivating natural phenomenon, this time expressed in Japanese, is komerabi. There is no single English word that captures the meaning of komerabi, but it can be expressed as 'sunlight filtering through the branches of a tree'.


Novelist Milan Kundera was so fascinated by this word in his native Czech language that he dedicated a whole chapter of the foreign translation of 'The Book of Laughter and Forgetting' to it.
untranslatable words, travel, exploration, adventure

Infamously evasive to any attempt at translation, the word can be expressed rudimentally in English as "the sudden realisation of one's own wretchedness, and the turmoil that comes with it", although this does not come close to truly expressing the expansive meaning of the word.


If the definition of litost made you feel a little glum, this Danish word should cheer you up. Hyggerlig translates roughly into English as 'cosy', but this really only covers part of its meaning.

Hyggerlig refers to the kind of cosy comfort one can only really experience in their own home, or when confronted by a pleasing memory of times gone by; which can't help but make you feel warm inside.


untranslatable words, travel, exploration, adventure
Saudade (1899) by Almeida Júnior

The Portuguese word Saudade is similar to hyggerlig in that it represents a form of nostalgia, albeit an altogether less comforting one.

Translated into English, Saudade is a profound longing for something absent, either a physical thing or person, or a set of circumstances or feelings. A close translation in English could be the verb 'to pine', although saudade is a noun.


It's appropriate that the German word Waldeinsamkeit is so reminiscent of Henri David Thoreau's Walden Pond, the eponymous body of water described in his 1854 book (the title of which is itself derived from the German word for woodland).

I think Thoreau would probably have been pleased with the comparison, as it roughly translates as 'the feeling of being alone in the woods', a feeling that the author spent two years experiencing between 1845 and 1847.

Which ones have we missed? Take to the comments below and tell us.
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Why? For when words fail you...
Your Comment
One of my favourite words from another language is "xenitia". It is Greek and portrays a loss of country; a type of exile. This state of mind has been imposed on many Greeks who have been forced by different or difficult circumstances to leave their beloved Greece to move to foreign lands. In the Classics Themistocles was forced into xenitia because he was ostracised. I continue to suffer from Xenitia because I am not living in my beloved country, Greece. Whole groups, for example, many people from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, Sudan are suffering Xenitia as I write. We need to welcome them, not persecute them. The only cure for Xenitia is return. One of my favourite poets wrote a poem called "The Satrapy". The poet's name is Cavafy; he dedicated this poem to Themistocles.
by rosha (score: 2|168) 2811 days ago
Fascinating stuff, Rosha. That is a word I've never come across before, but something I have some experience of having lived away from home for quite a while (although not really in any kind of exile :) )
by John Burns (score: 1|11) 2737 days ago
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