The Challenge in the translation of untranslatable words

The Challenge in the translation of untranslatable words

Tatiana Osoblivaia


Language and Culture


For translators, one of the biggest challenges is translating words with no direct translation into another language. These situations are often referred to as a translation of an “untranslatable” word or phrase. It can be difficult to convey the exact meaning and feeling of an untranslatable word in a different language, which is why it is so important for translators to be creative when tackling this challenge. Let's take a look at what makes a word untranslatable and how translators can approach these tricky linguistic puzzles.


What makes the word "untranslatable"?

The most common reasons for words being deemed untranslatable are cultural differences and nuances in language that cannot be conveyed with one single word. For example, the German word Schadenfreude roughly translates to “enjoyment from others’ misfortune” but does not have a direct translation in English. Similarly, the Spanish phrase “esperpento” has no exact translation but is used to describe something that looks strange or distorted.


How translators handle untranslatable words

When faced with an untranslatable word, professional translators must get creative to accurately convey the intended message. This could involve using multiple words or phrases to capture the same sentiment as the original untranslatable word or phrase.

Alternatively, they may choose to use descriptive imagery to explain the concept more fully. They might also opt for a literal translation if they feel that it still accurately conveys the meaning behind an untranslatable word or phrase.


There are some tips about how to translate untranslatable words and phrases

Neologisms and Loanwords

When translating between two different languages, there are often when one language contains a word that does not exist in the other. When it comes to neologisms or words that are recently created in one language but have no corresponding translation in another, this presents a unique problem for translators. In these cases, it often falls upon the translator to create a new loanword based on the original meaning of the neologism. This allows them to convey the same concept as if it was already present in their target language.

Cultural references and idioms

For cultures with rich histories and traditions, certain concepts can only be adequately expressed through culturally specific metaphors and imagery. This is especially true for idiomatic expressions whose literal translations may completely lose their intended meanings when translated into different languages. In these cases, professional translators will often find other ways to express these concepts without directly translating them word-for-word. For example, they might use synonyms or analogies of familiar objects or situations to communicate the desired message as accurately as possible.

Translation technology

As translation technologies become more advanced, they provide increasingly sophisticated tools for tackling untranslatable words and phrases. For example, machine translation algorithms can now detect when a text contains terms that don’t have direct equivalents in another language and can suggest alternative options accordingly.

Furthermore, many modern software solutions offer glossaries of pre-translated terms that can be used by human translators as reference points for more accurate language translations.

Finally, post-editing solutions make it easier for experienced human linguists to quickly spot errors made by machine translations and correct them before publishing or distributing any texts to customers or clients.


Examples of untranslatable words across languages

Language is inherently complex, and oftentimes some words or phrases do not have a direct translation into another language. These untranslatable words often capture nuances of emotion, meaning, and culture in ways that no single word can. There are some examples of it.

From Spanish to English: Sobremesa (Spanish)

In Spanish-speaking countries, the “sobre mesa” tradition is an essential part of the dining experience. “Sobremesa” literally translates to “over the table” but it refers to the time after a meal when people linger at the table talking and enjoying each other’s company. This concept does not have a true equivalent in English; although we may use phrases such as “dessert conversation” or “table talk” to try and express this idea, they don’t quite capture the essence of sobre mesa as a cultural tradition.

From French to English: Dépaysement (French)

The French word “dépaysement” literally translates to “un-countrying” but it describes the feeling of being out of one's element or unfamiliar with their surroundings. It implies a sense of homesickness or disorientation and often accompanies travelers who visit new places. This term has no direct equivalent in English - we may say someone feels homesick or out of place but neither phrase quite captures the intensity of “dépaysement”.

From Japanese to English: Shouganai (Japanese)

The Japanese word “shouganai” can be used in several contexts but it generally conveys acceptance or resignation towards something that cannot be changed no matter how hard one tries. There is no exact translation for this concept in English; while we may say something like “it is what it is” or “what will be, will be” these phrases lack the depth and emotion conveyed by “shouganai”.

From Danish to English: Hygge (Danish)

The Danish word “hygge” is often used to describe feelings of coziness, simplicity, and contentment. It’s not just about being comfortable; hygge is about feeling at home in the moment and enjoying simple pleasures with friends or family. In English, we might use words like “cozy” or “homely” but they don't quite capture the essence of hygge as it's experienced in Denmark.

We explored some examples of untranslatable words from different languages that are difficult if not impossible to express in English. As these words demonstrate, language is incredibly nuanced and complex - and sometimes even one single word can hold multitudes of meanings that are lost in translation.


Understanding these untranslatable words gives us insight into both our language as well as those spoken around the world. They open up possibilities for cross-cultural understanding and appreciation for how language shapes our lives and experiences across cultures.

Untranslatable words pose a unique challenge for professional translators because they require special care and attention to accurately convey their meaning and sentiment in another language. By understanding what makes a word untranslatable and getting creative with their translations, translators can ensure their work remains accurate and true to form even when faced with this difficult task!




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