Mar 13, 2011 7:02:07 AM
Say again? Words that have no translation
Travelling overseas and want to show the locals your know-how? You might not be able to say ‘please pass the cheese’ in Danish, but if you can use ‘hygge‘ in a sentence, you’re bound to astound.
Here are some words that are so enmeshed in their native culture that there’s no perfect translation for them outside the original language.
Hygge - a very important Danish word to express a sense of warmth and companionship. Or cosiness. As explained by author Cristian Bonnetto in his article on where to get some ‘hygge‘ in Copenhagen. According to the Danish tourism body it’s as Danish as ‘pork roast and cold beer’. There is interesting overlap with the German gemütlich and the Dutch word gezellig as discussed in this Thorn Tree topic. Whatever version of cosy you favour, it’s all about happy places.
Antojo - a Spanish word that translates as ‘a whim, a sudden craving’. Hence, the word ‘antojitos‘ which is used to describe a style of Mexican dish – somewhat akin to Spanish tapas - that’s at the heart of the nation’s cuisine.
Saudade – Portuguese for a melancholic longing for better times. It can be a longing for something concrete, a person who has left or passed away. But it can also be a ‘vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist‘. Check out this Lonely Planet video tribute.
Schadenfreude – The classic. Can’t be translated neatly into other languages – but eminently understood. Deriving happiness from others’ unhappiness.
Litost – According to NPR, this is an untranslatable emotion that only a Czech person would suffer from, defined by Milan Kundera as ‘a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery’. So a sort of counterpoint to schadenfreude in a way.
Talkoot - In Finnish it’s ‘talkoot‘, in Swedish it’s ‘talko‘. What does it mean? As commenter Haje says on Logolalia’s Untranslatable community project, ‘having talkoot or talko means getting together, voluntarily, to get some not-so-fun-but-needs-to-be-done-work done, either for one single occasion or on a regular basis, e.g. people in a village building a school, members of the snowmobile club breaking a new trail.’ How Scandinavian.
Ta’arof – a Farsi word that is at the heart of Persian culture. According to Lonely Planet’s Iran guidebook, ta’arof describes a system of formalised politeness that can seem very confusing to outsiders, but is a mode of social interaction in which everyone knows their place and their role. In ta’arof, two people will try to show their deference to the other by repeatedly offering food, hospitality or anything at their disposal. For travellers to Iran the most important thing to note is that taxi drivers will often tell you that the ride was free, or offer it to you at a lower price. Not true, this is classic ta’arof; travellers should pay the right amount to avoid annoying the driver. That said, sometimes an offer will be genuine. Knock it back a couple of times and, if it’s still being offered, take advantage of Iranian hospitality.
Wabi sabi – a word of the day at one time on the Thorn Tree forum, community member Treeplanter explains it as an ‘old fashioned Japanese word that is the basis of their aesthetics meaning the subtle beauty of nature, the profound in the ordinary, and the aesthetics of imperfection.’
Vacilando – according to glossary.com, it’s a Spanish term for the act of wandering when the experience of travel is more important than reaching the specific destination. John Steinbeck (in Travels With Charley: In Search of America, 1962) wrote: ‘In Spanish there is a word for which I can’t find a counterword in English. It is the verb vacilar, present participle vacilando. It does not mean vacillating at all. If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere, but does not greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction.’
Got any others to suggest? Let us know. And if you’re a language nerd, you might like to join the conversation on our Speaking in Tongues forum.