Untranslatable words: a magic multicultural experience.


found-in-translation-illustrations-anjana-iyer-thumb290I am sure that at some point of your life you have experienced this feeling. And if you are one of those people who can´t stop travelling, you feel it every time you spend more than a month at home. Probably this sensation does not have a specific word to define it in your language, but let me tell you that German has it, and it is called “Fernweh”.


This article will explore the furthermost corners of some languages, to discover how an indefinable sensation in your language, is perfectly definable in others. This will not be only a curious language class in which you will learn foreign words, but also a multicultural experience. Yield to the temptation of this multilingual trip through untranslatable words which will become indispensable in your vocabulary after reading this post.

Do you have that typical friend in your social group who tells such terrible jokes that the rest cannot help but laugh? Or… are you the one that tells these Jayus? Yes, you read that correctly, these kinds of jokes are called Jayus in Indonesian. This could make a lot of people think that Indonesian jokes are not the best in the world… right? Staying on the subject of social situations, you probably have had an uncomfortable moment or two when you wanted to introduce two people, but you couldn´t remember the name of one… This horrible feeling of hesitation has a term in Scottish and it is called to tartle.

We are now going to change the atmosphere and become a little bit romantic. What about the intimate feeling of playing with the hair of your lover? In Portuguese, this act is expressed by the word cafuné. Think of it, and teach a new word to your partner next time he/she caresses your hair. Continuing with tender untranslatable words, what if I told you that in Tagalog there is a word to describe the euphoria you feel right after something related to love happens? For example when you receive a message of the person you like, or when that person suddenly invites you to have dinner. Then if this happens to you, from now on you can say (even if you are not in the Philippines) Kilig!

This is all very sweet, but there are also words to express that you are not in love anymore. You feel razbliuto in Russian when you see a person with whom you were once in love with, but not anymore. And when you want to get back together with your “ex” (even though you know it´s going to end in disaster) in Italian they describe this situation as cavoli riscaldati! (reheated cabbage).

Going back to more general feelings… what about that one you have when you are waiting for someone to come to your house, and you look through the window at least twenty times? The Inuits have a specific word for this feeling of anticipation; Iktsuarpok! And let’s say that your friend finally arrives and you invite him to have lunch together. If your friend is Spanish, he will probably enjoy a long Sobremesa. That is a word that you absolutely need to add to your vocabulary. It´s the time you spend after lunch talking with the people with whom you have eaten (it can go from ten minutes to several hours!). He spends the afternoon, leaves after dinner and when you are straightening the house, you realise that some objects are missing. You are then allowed to say Tingo! In Pascuense (Easter Island) this is the act of taking the objects you like from the house of your friends… and you end up taking everything.

Minority languages also have untranslatable words. For instance “Aspaldiko!” is what you say in Basque to say “Hey! How are you! It´s been a long time since we saw each other!” In Nuorese (a dialect of Sardinia) there is a word that defines a concept for which you would use at least a sentence in another language: “Balente”. It is used to define someone funny, who is always trying to be comical, and is always surrounded by drama and problems of all kinds.


After reading this post… which words are you going to add your life? Do you know more untranslatable words? Do you have some in your language? Leave us a comment and explain the meaning to us!


By Helene Aguirre Mindeguia, student of the MA Learning & Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Context (University Luxembourg) – Study visitor at TermCoord