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How Do You Say …? For Some Words, There’s No Easy Translation

Filed by KOSU News in World News.
August 30, 2013

Just as good writing demands brevity, so, too, does spoken language. Sentences and phrases get whittled down over time. One result: single words that are packed with meaning, words that are so succinct and detailed in what they connote in one language that they may have no corresponding word in another language.

Such words aroused the curiosity of the folks at a website called Maptia, which aims to encourage people to tell stories about places.

“We wanted to know how they used their language to tell their stories,” Maptia co-founder and CEO Dorothy Sanders tells All Things Considered host Robert Siegel.

So they asked people across the globe to give them examples of words that didn’t translate easily to English.

Here’s a selection from their list of 11 untranslatable words — plus two of Sanders’ personal favorites and a few from teachers at the International Center for Language Studies in Washington, D.C.

11 Untranslatable Words

Spanish: Sobremesa

Spaniards tend to be a sociable bunch, and this word describes the period of time after a meal when you have food-induced conversations with the people you have shared the meal with.

German: Waldeinsamkeit

A feeling of solitude, being alone in the woods and a connectedness to nature.

French: Depaysement

The feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country — of being a foreigner, or an immigrant, of being somewhat displaced from your origin.

Japanese: Komorebi

This is the word the Japanese have for when sunlight filters through the trees — the interplay between the light and the leaves.

Swedish: Mangata (Finnish: Kuunsilta)

The word for the glimmering, roadlike reflection that the moon creates on water.

Urdu: Goya

Urdu is the national language of Pakistan, but it is also an official language in five of the Indian states. This particular Urdu word conveys a contemplative “as if” that nonetheless feels like reality and describes the suspension of disbelief that can occur, often through good storytelling.

Indonesian: Jayus

Slang for someone who tells a joke so badly, that is so unfunny you cannot help but laugh out loud.

Hawaiian: Pana po’o

You know when you forget where you’ve put the keys, and you scratch your head because it somehow seems to help your remember? This is the word for it.

Two picks from Dorothy Sanders:

Finnish: Poronkusema

The distance reindeer can travel comfortably before taking a break.

Tagalog: Kilig

The feeling of butterflies in the stomach.

Picks From Instructors At The International Center For Language Studies In Washington, D.C.

Dutch: Gezellig

Literally, it means cozy, quaint or nice, but can also connote time spent with loved ones, seeing a friend after a long absence, or general togetherness.

Farsi: Zaghart

A term used for a situation where someone has made a huge mistake or messed up badly in life, work, etc., and is out of options.

Swahili: Tuko pajoma

Denotes a shared sense of purpose and motivation in a group. It transcends mere agreement and implies empathetic understanding, or “We are together.” [Copyright 2013 NPR]

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