Which are the untranslatable words of the world?

Published on 17/10/2022

Generally speaking, almost any word in any language can be translated into any other language. In many cases, a translation company such as ours is used to achieve a good result in this respect. However, not even experienced professionals are able to translate certain words.

That’s because some terms are considered untranslatable. There are many examples across the globe, many of them related to affection and feelings.

1. Spanish words that cannot be translated into other languages

The RAE dictionary has a total of approximately ninety thousand entries. Almost one hundred percent are translatable, but there are some very specific terms that are not. A clear example is “anteayer”, a term that is only used in a few languages worldwide.

It is common for some untranslatable words to refer to a deep-rooted custom or tradition in that country. This is the case for the term “siesta”. This one is also known in English speaking countries, because many countries simply use the same word since there is no exact translation to refer to this period of rest.

Of course that’s not all. In addition to those already mentioned, there are other words like “friolero”. It describes a sense of being cold, which many other cultures may also have, but not as precise as this one.

Both synonyms and literal translations are used by professionals when it comes to those words in different kinds of texts. For example, if the word “anteayer” appears in a text, it is referred to as 'the day before yesterday' or 'two days ago'.

2. German: many untranslatable words

If you think that Spanish has enough untranslatable terms, be prepared for German. A clear example of this is “Warmduscher", a word that refers to a person who under no circumstances has the ability to leave their comfort zone.

And here comes another untranslatable German word: “Drachenfutter” which can be translated with synonyms or simply literal translations “dragon food” and adding an explanation for the target audience. What the German term refers to is a gift, given to a partner in order to compensate for some kind of negative behaviour.

Another German word that cannot be translated is ”Kabelsalat”. It literally means “cable salad” and refers to the tangle of cables that is often found in backpacks and bags: headphones, chargers, etc.

Another word which must be added to the untranslatable German list: “Kummerspeck”. Many people have experienced it themselves, gaining weight from eating more when you are sad and anxious.

3. Some untranslatable words scattered around the world

Beyond our borders there are also countries that have their own words which, cannot be translated not only into English, but also into other languages. We start with a neighbouring country: Portugal, with the word “saudade”. It refers to desiring something non-existent or something that was available years ago. A possible synonym would be nostalgia.

From the Portuguese of the Iberian country, we move on to Brazilian Portuguese. Another untranslatable Portuguese word is: “cafuné” Basically it could be defined as stroking the hair of someone you love, in a delicate and affectionate way.

Other untranslatable words are “jayus” and “akihi”. The first one is Indonesian and refers to jokes that, despite being very bad, ends up in great laughter. The second is Hawaiian and is defined as the state of someone who forgets the directions/indications received.

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Virginia Pacheco's picture
Virginia Pacheco

Blog writer and Community Manager interested in multiculturality and linguistic diversity. From her native Venuzuela, she has travelled and lived for many years in France, Germany, Cameroon and Spain, passing on her passion for writing and her intercultural experiences.

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