Words are the building blocks of language. They’re what allow us to articulate our ideas and paint vivid, highly detailed pictures in other people’s minds. If we described a juicy, medium rare New York strip steak, for example, you’d immediately be able to conjure up an image of what we were talking about. You might even find yourself salivating in the process … well, maybe that’s just us.
What makes words powerful is our ability to associate meaning with them. If you know what juicy, medium rare, and strip steak all mean, then when your brain puts them together in context, you know that it makes for a delightfully mouthwatering combination. (Sorry vegans and vegetarians, we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one.)
It’s this one-to-one matching of ideas that translators rely on to do their work. It’s what allows them to say with certainty that “the brown dog” is expressed as der braune Hund in German, le chien brun in French, and el perro marrón in Spanish.
The problem that translators sometimes run into is that many languages have words and expressions for which there are no equivalents in other cultures. While they bring a unique richness to language, they also can leave translators grasping at straws as they try to succinctly convey what they mean.
Sometimes a small number of these words get adopted in English. Take the German word schadenfreude, for example, which means taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune. Apparently although the word isn’t universal, the feeling is. Maybe that’s why these days it’s not uncommon to come across schadenfreude in writing and even in conversation. People have latched onto this word so much so that it’s now even in US dictionaries.
Yet there’s a whole bunch of foreign words that are equally quirky but not nearly as well known. While they may put a smile on your face (some of them really do convey great ideas), for translators they’re nothing short of a nightmare. Some examples include:
- Abbiocco (Italian): Drowsiness from eating a big meal.
- Backpfeifengesicht (German): A face that needs to be slapped.
- Cafuné (Portuguese): The act of running your fingers through a lover’s hair.
- Fernweh (German): Feeling homesick for a place you have never been to.
- Friolero (Spanish): Someone who is particularly sensitive to cold weather and temperatures.
- Gattara (Italian): A woman, often old and lonely, who devotes herself to stray cats.
- Gökotta (Swedish): To wake up early in the morning with the purpose of going outside to hear the first birds sing.
- Jayus (Indonesian): An unfunny joke told so poorly that one cannot help but laugh.
- Komorebi (Japanese): The sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees.
- Pana po’o (Hawaiian): The act of scratching one’s head in order to remember the location of a misplaced object.
- Schnapsidee (German): A plan that is hatched when you are drunk, or a plan so ridiculous you must have been drunk when you thought it up.
- Shemomedjamo (Georgian): When you continue to eat an entire meal in spite of feeling full.
- Tampo (Filipino): Withdrawing affection from a person when one’s feelings have been hurt.
- Tartle (Scottish): The act of hesitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name.
- Tsundoku (Japanese): Leaving a book unread after buying it.
- Utepils (Norwegian): To sit outside on a sunny day enjoying a beer.
- Waldeinsamkeit (German): The feeling of solitude, being alone in the woods, and a connectedness to nature.
Of course, we have some words like this in English too. Ones that others struggle to convey, at least in certain languages. Any guesses as to what they might be? Here’s a short list:
- Butter up
- Rain check
Words like these give our language a special and unique flavor just as all of the foreign words we’ve cited above do for their respective languages. They may not make translators’ lives any easier, but they do make their jobs all the more interesting.