When Only One Word Won’t Do

When Only One Word Won’t Do GrTranslations

We’ve all been there at one time or another – scrambling around in our brains fruitlessly trying to come up with an equivalent of what we mean in another language. And often it’s not because we can’t actually speak that particular language, but because there’s simply no equivalent.

Could that be because individuals in other countries see the world slightly differently to us? It’s a thought. And, well, considering there are more than 6000 languages in the world, its kind-of understandable, really.

The author Milan Kundera was one such individual who found himself tearing his hair out at trying to find an equivalent for the Czech word litost. A Czech citizen experiencing litost would be a tormented individual who is in agony because he’s just caught sight of how miserable he or she is. In English, well he’d be verging on minor depression.
Here in Scotland we’ve our own untranslatable word (one of many we’re sure). It’s tartle. Not a word you often hear on the streets of (even) Glasgow these days, it describes that embarrassing silence when you’re trying to introduce someone whose name you’ve forgotten. Er, haven’t we all had occasion to use that particular word?!

The Japanese word Kyoikumama is one which Mumsnet and other mummy bloggers forums around the world should take note of. That’s because it describes a mother who stops at nothing to ensure her child excels academically. Remember Tiger Mum?

Untranslatable insults

If you’re a man in Germany and referred to as a sitzpinkler then you’re not going to be very flattered. Why? Because it directly translates as ‘a man who sits to pee’ – in other words, a bit of a wuss (as we’d say in English).
Germany again, gets our next vote with the next word – backpfeifengesicht – a beautifully abbreviated way to say someone has ‘a face in need of a fist’ ie someone who deserves a punch.
Still on the subject of insults, if you’re referred to as a luftmensch in Yiddish then understand that you’re simply ‘an impractical dreamer with no business sense whatsoever.’ It’s not nice, but it’s better than having a ‘punchable’ face, we reckon.
Maybe you recognise the next word – or at least the definition? Bakku-shan in Japanese is used to define a woman who looks lovely from behind but er, is not quite so attractive from the front. Yep, it’s a derogatory word and we’re rather curious to know if there’s a male equivalent. And if not, why not??

Useful untranslatable words

One of our favourite non-equivalent words is Papakata in the Maori language. And yet it covers a condition which is experienced worldwide – an individual who has one leg shorter than the other.

Over the years, we have found that often it’s a case of having to slightly adjust a piece of text in order to get the desired meaning in another language. Take the following example for the word Ilunga, for instance.

If you live in Southwest Congo then Ilunga is perfectly understandable. For the rest of the world though, quite a bit of text ‘tweaking’ may be necessary in order to get the desired meaning which is: “some who is about to forgive the abuse which she or he has just experienced, yet are prepared to tolerate it a second time. Were it to occur a third time, however, forgiveness would never be given.” So, put that into one word in English, Greek etc……

All of the above shows that you can never take a straight-forward translation for granted and that you won’t always get things to fit.

Meanwhile, what’s your favourite non-translatable word or phrase? Do share!

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