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Translating the Untranslatable: Words with No Direct Equivalent

by Chad Richardson

September 14, 2020

If you are bilingual, then you know that it’s difficult to translate certain things from one language to another. There are certain words which don’t have any equivalent in other languages; they can be translated but only by using a longer phrase or an entire sentence. And yet, once you use this entire sentence, the other person will be able to understand what you’re saying because they’ve heard of that phenomenon even if they don’t have a word for it.

This is the beauty of humanity—we can all understand each other if we try. And translators can help to create this type of bridge between people speaking different languages and belonging to different cultures. Here are some interesting words which a good translator will be able to get across, even if they don’t have a direct equivalent:

  1. Kummerspeck (German): You know how you tend to eat more when you’re upset? This is a phenomenon that Americans may only have become aware of more recently, with the advent of psychotherapy. But Germans have been aware of Kummerspeck—the excess weight gained from overeating—for a while now and therefore, they have a word for it.
  2. Tartle (Scottish): You’re walking with a friend, you meet another and you have an entire conversation with the latter without introducing the first. Why would someone do something so rude? Obviously because you’ve forgotten the name of that first friend! And that panicky feeling you got when you met the second and couldn’t remember their name—that’s tartling!
  3. Gigil (Filipino): You know how you hated it when people pinched your cheek when you were a kid? Well, now you should know they couldn’t help it because they felt gigil—an irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze something cute!
  4. Layogenic (Tagalog): You know how you see a beach and a sunset from far away and think it’s really beautiful, only to get up close and find it’s completely littered with trash? That’s what layogenic means—something that looks great from a distance but not so great up close.
  5. L’esprit de L’Escalier (French): This phrase literally means “stairwell wit” and refers to a sensation that we’ve all experienced. You get into a fight or an argument—or maybe you’re just having an intellectual discussion—but at some point, you get stumped by something the other person says. And then, you think of a great retort just as you’re leaving or when you’re no longer in that situation.

Contact us for a translation that will help you to come up with a meaning for all kinds of words, even those that might seem untranslatable.

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