European Untranslatable Words
Wilhelm von Humboldt, 1795.
The act of speaking is a cultural expression par excellence. A language concentrates all the cultural representations of a community about, for instance, interpersonal relations, feelings, behaviors, world perceptions…. They embody historical experiences and consequently, can’t be shared in the very same way by others. In Europe, untranslatability shouldn’t be a barrier to the will of living together, but a way to enhance our common heritage with many other words completing our vocabulary. Above is this first list ever published of European untranslatable words. You’ll see, some words are very amusing and express emotions that we all experienced once, but without being able to name it. This isn’t the case anymore!
Saudade – We begin our list with the most famous European untranslatable word. Saudade is a deep emotional state of nostalgia concerning something or someone that you miss and which is lost forever. In Portugal, Fado music is often considered as the musical expression of saudade.
Duende – This is, especially in Flamenco, the mysterious power that a work of art has to deeply move a person. The poet Federico Garcia Lorca used the sentence of Goethe to define it as “the mysterious power that we all feel, but that no philosopher could explain”. This is closed to the French Stendhal syndrome.
Bérézina – « C’est la bérézina ! » expresses more than a serious failure, a walloping. It comes from the battle of Bérézina in 1812 in actual Byelorussia between the French Army of Napoléon and the Russian Army of Koutousov during which many French soldiers died while trying to cross the cold river Berezina.
Spam – In the country where Google has its seat, we chose the word “spam” which has been voted among the most untranslatable words in the English language, in a worldwide poll of a thousand professional translators and interpreters. The word, now used to define an unsolicited electronic message, was originally a canned precooked meat product.
Lagom – This word is often used to qualify everything, from food and drink to law and politics that is just at a right amount. It includes the ideas of “enough”, “sufficient”, “average”, “optimal” or “suitable”. It designates a situation which is not too much and not too little, as in “lagom lång” (the right height) or “lagom varmt” (the optimal heat).
Jaksaa – This verb can be used in many situations to express the lack of energy to do something. If someone asks another one if he wants to go out tonight, the other may answer “I don’t think I jaksaa”.
Hyggelig – The Danish untranslatable word appears for example in the tragedy of Hamlet and designates the mentality and demeanor of being warm, accommodating and friendly. Politically, it finds an echo in the earn renown of Denmark in Europe to welcome political refugees.
Voorpret – This word means literally “pre-fun”. It designates the sense of enjoyment that one can feel before an event actually takes places. This is for instance the case when people are looking through brochures for the trip that are about to take.
Dépaysement – This untranslatable French word defines the feeling of well-being experienced by not being home. This is a mixture of disorientation, such as experienced in the movie Lost in Translation, and the perspective of pleasure associated to new surroundings.
Schadenfreude – This may be one of the funniest words of this list. It (unfortunately) designates the feeling of pleasure derived by seeing another’s misfortune. In the animated sitcom The Simpsons, Nelson embodies this word when he continuously laughs at everyone misfortune.
Torschlusspanik – Literally “gate-closing panic”, this German untranslatable word express the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages. This word is most frequently applied to women who race the “biological clock” to wed and bear children.
Litost – Quite amusing is the fact that this word would signify almost the opposite of the German word. It designates a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery. Milan Kundera himself said that this word was untranslatable, but at the same time essential to understand human soul!
Prezvoniť – This word exists in both Czech and Slovak languages (written Prozvonit in Czech) and means to call a mobile phone and let it ring only once, so that the person called would call back, allowing the previous caller not to spend money. In Spanish, the expression “dar un toque” has quite the same meaning.
Formacja – In social sciences, the Polish word Formacja designates a state of mind and a culture peculiar to one generation. This is between “class” and “generation”. We are all for a whole life belonging to one Formacja.
Knygnešys – This untranslatable word would be literally translated as “book carrier”. In the period during which the Russian Tsar restricted press liberties, Knygnešiai saved the Lithuanian language and culture by transporting illegal books printed in Prussia.
Talaka – This untranslatable word designates the common practice in Byelorussia of mutual assistance in a community or a village, for a work in somebody’s house or field. The person helping doesn’t expect anything else than a good meal shared by the end of the day.
Holodomor – Literally “extermination by hunger”, this word in Ukraine evokes the terrible memory of the historical starvation of 1932-1933 during which between 2,6 and 5 millions of people died. This word now means “hunger,” “plague,” and “torture”.
Vic – This Croatian word comes from the German “Witz”, a peculiar form of humor which can be perceived, for instance, in ethnic jokes. In Former Yugoslavia, the Vic may be a good way to get rid of the terrible past in this region.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bolan – The word Bolan from Bosnia and Herzegovina is polysemous and used with excess in the everyday life. This interjection is an intensifier used to address a single male in direct informal communication.
Inat – This word is interesting because it includes two persons simultaneously. It means to cause someone else harm or damage but at the same time doing harm to yourself in the process because you are stubborn at the same time.
Petchalba – This word only exists for male. It describes the rite during which young males leave their home just after their weddings to make their fortune in the world before coming back to their birth place. This social phenomenon, born in the Ottoman Empire, is now an initiatory phase of every man in Macedonia.
Chuzhbinia – Literally translated as “foreigner’s land”, the Bulgarian word put a name on the place situated anywhere outside of one’s own country. The word is used in place of saying any specific region or area.
Filotimo – Filotimo means literally a friend of honor, but involves also dignity, pride, sacrifice and respect. The philosopher Thales said, “Filotimo to the Greek is like breathing. A Greek is not a Greek without it. He might as well not be alive.”
Muvaffakiyetsizleştiricileştiriveremeyebileceklerimizdenmişsinizcesine – As Turkish is an agglutinative language, one can make words with an infinite number of letters, and this word is considered as the longest in Turkey. It means nothing really understandable, but this is precisely the discounted effect: “As though you are from those we may not be able to easily make a maker of unsuccessful ones”
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