Oct 30, 2008

Ten Most Difficult Words to Translate

Sometimes even the finest translators come up against words that defy translation.

Many languages include words that don’t have a simple counterpart in another language.

Here are ten words that are particularly difficult to translate.

From Yagan, the indigenous language of the Tierra del Fuego region of South America. This word has been translated in several ways in English, always implying a wordless yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.

From Indonesian, meaning a joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh.

In both Czech and Slovak language, this word means to call a mobile phone only to have it ring once so that the other person would call back, allowing the caller not to spend money on minutes.

In Japanese, this word refers to a mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement.

A Scottish verb meaning to hesitate while introducing someone due to having forgotten his/her name.

From the Inuit, meaning to go outside to check if anyone is coming.

From Brazilian Portuguese, meaning to tenderly run one’s fingers through someone’s hair.

From German, this word literally means “gate-closing panic” and is used to describe 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.

From the Pascuense language of Easter Island, it is the act of taking objects one desires from the house of a friend by gradually borrowing all of them.

From the Tshiluba language spoken in south-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, this word has been chosen by numerous translators as the world’s most untranslatable word. Ilunga indicates a person who is ready to forgive any abuse the first time it occurs, to tolerate it the second time, but to neither forgive nor tolerate a third offense.


Anonymous said...

How about "Duende" (Spanish)

Typical Translations are like this one :" as a fairy- or goblin-like creature in Spanish and Latin American mythology"
Better translations are usually something like " a difficult-to-define phrase in the Spanish arts that connotes emotion and authenticity"

The best translations mention something like " the feeling of flow or oneness while performing music or creating art."

That is why my company is called DuendePhoto.

Anonymous said...


Swedish for the perfect amount/state. Not too compilcated, the right amount of work, the suitable position of a thing. A cup of coffee could be Lagom, when it's within the expected strenght and size, but therefor never said that Lagom equals perfect.

Anonymous said...


Portuguese word meaning the sorrow for someone or someting abscent, the desire to revisit beloved place or a pleasant event in the past.

Albert Herring on 9:12 AM said...

You misunderstand the nature of translation: these are pretty much easy peasy to translate; they just require a bit of circumlocution, as you have done in the definitions. Translation difficulties often involve whole sentences, but when it comes to individually troublesome words, the ones which cause most trouble are those which are vague or have many different overlapping meanings which are not covered by any single word in the target language: good examples would be the Dutch "opnemen" (for which the Van Dale Dutch-English dictionary suggests
-lift (up)
-take on/up/down/out/in
-draw from / out
-measure (up)
-survey (land)
-shoot (film)
-introduce, include, enter, bring in
-drink (in), assimilate
-mop / wipe up
(although of course, it does not cover all meanings of those English words...)

"Get" in English presents the same sort of problems going the other way, even before you start taking into account the phrasal combinations with separate meanings like get up, get into, get off, get off with, get down, get up to...

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