Some words don’t translate well from one language to another. This may depend on the language used for the translation or it may be something that’s culturally specific. Regardless, each language has its own specific untranslatable words that lose power and sometimes meaning when we try to express them in a different language.
We, translators, are fascinated by such words because they pack a lot of life in just a few syllables and create quite the trouble when we’re looking for interpretation in a different language.
The job of a translator is not over until the new text conveys the same meaning and has the same power as the original text. This requires advanced knowledge in the field of the original text and a deep relationship with both languages. However, untranslatable words will have even expert linguists scratching their heads in the look for the perfect translation.
Still, our job is to make sure every translation is accurate and represents the original intentions of the writer. In consequence, specialists came up with several tricks to work around such words without losing anything from the original text.
Today we’ll discuss the meaning behind four untranslatable words, each from a different culture and background.
Time Off for Germans
When you think about the German work ethic, it’s difficult to picture these guys relaxing (especially as an outsider). Still, they make a clear distinction between work time and off time. Even more, they have a word for it (Feierabend).
And no, it doesn’t just mean time off work; the word conveys a more powerful meaning that can only be understood by someone familiar with the culture. Put in plain terms, it means a time to do nothing and enjoy some quiet time after a work day.
The Finnish Spirit
The Finns have a word that defines their spirit as a nation by combining the meanings of tenacity, determination, sustained courage, perseverance, and more on the same note. The word is sisu and is considered to be untranslatable because it has more to deal with emotions than meaning.
Sisu is what helped Finns defend their borders against more powerful enemies and is what made them one of the most stable and wealthiest countries in the world. Furthermore, the same word can also depict stubbornness and resistance to change, depending on the context.
This nation is constantly fighting Mother Nature’s fits by facing earthquakes, tsunamis, and even devastating floods, while still being one of the most technologically advanced in the world. Still, the past tragedies brought a strong sense of realism over the people, allowing them to know when a situation can’t be improved.
This is why they have the word shoganai in their vocabulary. It is a word that recognizes the tremendous power nature has over humans and all their creations. In time, the word developed into a coping mechanism that helps people deal with all sorts of unwanted and unpleasant situations. It’s a way of letting go and accepting that life doesn’t always go our way.
Time Off in Spain
Since we talked about German’s way of unwinding, let’s have a look at other people’s habits in this area. Spanish people are well known for their siestas and the fact that they love a calm and stress-free lifestyle.
Now, the word siesta is already known around the world and many people can understand its meaning. However, they have another word, that defines a different way of spending time: sobremesa.
The word defines time spent after lunch or dinner (but most likely lunch) doing pleasant activities such as talking, sharing jokes, and having a blast with friends, family or acquaintances. This is a period for slowly digesting the food you just consumed and appreciating the simple and enjoyable things in life.
It’s a word that completely fits with the Spanish spirit, which is calm and fun, rooted in the power of spending time strengthening bonds with friends and family and making new connections.
As you can see, the main reason why these words don’t have equivalent in other languages is the fact that they are culturally-specific. Each word is used to define something people do in a certain area or country, which is rather unique in the world.
So, to provide the ideal translation for an audience who can’t relate, you may have to make some references to the cultural background of the word. It also helps if you can find similar ideas to depict the full power of the word.